William Shakespeare

Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15

Talma (Hamlet) and Joséphine Duchesnois (Gertrude) in 1807, via Gallica

Source: Archibald Alison, Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15. Comprising a residence at Paris during the stay of the allied armies, and at Aix, at the period of the landing of Bonaparte (Edinburgh: printed for Macredie, Skelly, and Muckersy; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London; Black, Parry & Co. and T. Underwood, London; and J. Cumming, Dublin. 1816), vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 204-215

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Jean-François Ducis), Hamlet, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1814

Text: The tragedy of Hamlet, in which we saw Talma perform for the first time, is one which must be interesting to every person who has any acquaintance with French literature; and it will not probably be considered as any great digression in a description of Talma’s excellencies as an actor, to add some further remarks concerning that celebrated play in which his powers are perhaps most strikingly displayed, and which is one of the greatest compositions undoubtedly of the French theatre. It can hardly be called a translation, as many material alterations were made in the story of the play; and though the general purport of the principal speeches has
been sometimes preserved, the language and sentiments are generally extremely different. The character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was wholly unsuited to the taste of a French audience. What is the great attraction in that mysterious being to the feelings of the English people, the strange, wild, and metaphysical ideas which his art or his madness seems to take such pleasure in starting, and the uncertainty in which Shakespeare has left the reader with regard to Hamlet’s real situation, would not perhaps have been understood — certainly not admired, by those who were accustomed to consider the works of Racine and Voltaire as the models of dramatic composition. In the play of Ducis, accordingly, Hamlet thinks, talks, and acts pretty much as any other human being would do, who should be compelled to speak only in the verse of the French tragedy, which necessarily excludes, in a great degree, any great incoherence or flightiness of sentiment. In some respects, however, the French Hamlet, if a less poetical personage, is nevertheless a more interesting one, and better adapted to excite those feelings which are most within the command of the actor’s genius. M. Ducis has represented him as more doubtful of the reality of the vision which haunted him, or at least of the authority which had commissioned it for such dreadful communications; and this alteration, so important in the hands of Talma, was required on account of other changes which had been made in the story of the play. The paramour of the Queen is not Hamlet’s uncle, nor had the Queen either married the murderer, or discovered her criminal connexion with him. Hamlet, therefore, has not, in the incestuous marriage of his mother, that strong confirmation of the ghost’s communication, which, in Shakespeare, led him to suspect foul play even before he sees his father’s spirit. In the French play, therefore, Hamlet is placed in one of the most dreadful situations in which the genius of poetry can imagine a human being: Haunted by a spirit, which assumes such mastery over his mind, that he cannot dispel the fearful impression it has made, or disregard the communication it so often repeats, while his attachment to his mother, in whom he reveres the parent he has lost, makes him question the truth of crimes which are thus kid to her charge, and causes him to look upon this terrific spectre as the punishment of unknown crime, and the visitation of an offended Deity. Ducis has most judiciously and most poetically represented Hamlet, in the despair which his sufferings produce, as driven to the belief of an overruling destiny, disposing of the fate of its unhappy victims by the most arbitrary and revolting arrangement, and visiting upon some, with vindictive fury, the whole crimes of the age in which they live. There is in this introduction of ancient superstition, something which throws a mysterious veil round the destiny of Hamlet, that irresistibly engrosses the imagination, and which must be doubly interesting in that country where the horrors of the revolution have ended in producing a very prevalent, though vague belief, in the influence of fatality upon human character and human actions, among those who pretend to ridicule, as unmanly prejudice and childish delusion, the religion of modern Europe.

The struggle, accordingly, that appears to take place in Hamlet’s mind is most striking; and when at last he yields to the authority and the commands of the spirit, which exercises such tyranny over his mind, it does not seem the result of any farther evidence of the guilt which he is enjoined to revenge, but as the triumph of superstition over the strength of his reason. He had long resisted the influence of that visionary being, which announced itself as his father’s injured spirit, and in assuming that sacred form, had urged him to destroy the only parent whom fate had left; but the struggle had brought him to the brink of the grave, and shaken the empire of reason; and when at last he abandons himself to the guidance of a power which his firmer nature had long resisted, the impression of the spectator is, that his mind has yielded in the struggle, and that, in the desperate hope of obtaining relief from present wretchedness, he is about to commit the most horrible crimes, by obeying the suggestions of a spirit, which he more than suspects to be employed only to tempt him on to perdition. No description can possibly do justice to the manner in which this situation of Hamlet is represented by Talma; indeed, on reading over the play some time afterwards, it was very evident that the powers of the actor had invested the character with much of the grandeur and terror which seemed to belong to it, and that the imagination of the French poet, which rises into excellence, even when compared with the productions of that great master of the passions whom he has not submitted to copy, has been surpassed by the fancy of the actor for whom he wrote. The Hamlet of Talma is probably productive of more profound emotion, than any representation of character on any stage ever excited.

One other alteration ought to be mentioned, as it renders the circumstances of Hamlet’s situation still more distressing, and affords Talma an opportunity of displaying the effects of one of the gentler passions of human nature, when its influence seemed irreconcileable with the stern and fearful duties which fate had assigned to him. The Ophelia of the French play, so unlike that beautiful and innocent being who alone seems to connect the Hamlet of Shakespeare with the feelings and nature of ordinary men, has been made the daughter of the man for whose sake the king has been poisoned, and was engaged to marry Hamlet at that happier period when he was the ornament of his father’s court, and the hope of his father’s subjects. In the first part of the play, though no hint of the terrible revenge which he was to execute on her father has escaped, the looks and anxiety of Talma discover to her that her fate is in some degree connected with the emotions which so visibly oppress him, and she makes him at last confess the insurmountable barrier which separates them for ever. Nothing can be greater than the acting of Talma during this difficult scene, in which he has to resist the entreaties of the woman whom he loves, when imploring for the life of her father, and yet so overcome with his affection, as hardly to have strength left to adhere to his dreadful purpose.

The feelings of a French audience do not permit the spirit of Hamlet’s father to appear on the stage: “L’apparition se passe, (says Madame de Stael), en entier dans la physionomie de Talma, et certes elle n’en est pas ainsi moins effrayante. Quand, au milieu d’un entretien calme et melancohque, tout a coup il aperçoit le spectre, on suit tout ses mouvemens dans les yeux qui le contemplent, et l’on ne peut outer de la presence du fantome quand un tel regard l’atteste.” The remark is perfectly just, nothing can be imagined more calculated to dispel at once the effect which the countenance of a great actor, in such circumstances, would naturally produce, than bringing any one on the stage to personate the ghost; and whever has seen Talma in this part, will acknowledge that the mind is not disposed to doubt, for an instant, the existence of that form which no eye but his has seen, and of that voice which no ear but his has heard. We regretted much, while witnessing the astonishing powers which Talma displayed in this very difficult part of the play, that it was impossible to see his genius employed in giving effect to the character of Aristodemo, (in the Italian tragedy of that name by Monti), to which his talents alone could do justice, and which, perhaps, affords more room for the display of the actor’s powers, than any other play with which we are acquainted.

But the soliloquy on death is the part in which the astonishing excellence and genius of Talma are most strikingly displayed. Whatever difficulty there may often be to determine the particular manner in which scenes, with other characters, ought to be performed, there is no difference of opinion as to the manner in which soliloquies ought in general to be delivered. How comes it, then, that these are the very parts in which all feel that the powers of the actors are so much tried, and in which, for the most part, they principally fail? No one can have paid any attention to the English stage, without being struck with the circumstance, that while there may be much to praise in the performance of the other parts, many of the best actors uniformly fail in soliloquies; and that it is only of late, since the reputation of the English stage has been so splendidly revived, that we have seen these difficult and interesting parts properly performed. It is in this circumstance, more than any other, in which the talents of Talma are most remarkably displayed, because he is peculiarly fitted, by his complete personation of character, and the deep interest which he seems himself to take in the part he is sustaining, to excel in performing what chiefly requires such interest. He is, at all times, so fully impressed with the feelings, which, under such circumstances, must have been really felt, that one is uniformly struck with the truth and propriety of every thing he does; and of course, n soliloquies, which must be perfect, when the actor appears to be seriously and deeply interested in the subjects on which he is meditating, Talma invariably succeeds. In this soliloquy in Hamlet, he is completely absorbed in the awful importance of the great question which occupies his attention, and nothing indicates the least consciousness of the multitude which surrounds him, or even that he is giving utterance to the mighty thoughts which crowd upon his mind. “Talma ne faisoit pas un geste, quelquefois seulement il remuoit la tête pour questioner la terre et le ciel sur ce que c’est que la mort! Immobile, la dignite de la meditation absorboit tout son etre.” We could wish to avoid any attempt to describe the acting of Talma in those passages which the eloquence of M. de Stael has rendered familiar throughout Europe; yet we feel that this account of the tragedy of Hamlet would be imperfect, if we did not allude to that very interesting scene, which corresponds, in the history of the play, to the closet scene in Shakespeare. Talma appears with the urn which contains the ashes of his father, and whose injured spirit he seems to consult, to obtain more proof of the guilt which he is to revenge, or in the hope that the affections of human nature may yet survive the horrors of the tomb, and that the duty of the son will not be tried in the blood of the parent who gave him birth. But no voice is heard to alter the sentence which he is doomed to execute; and he is still compelled to prepare himself to meet with sternness his guilty mother. After charging her, with the utmost tenderness and solemnity, with the knowledge of her husband’s murder, he places the urn in her hands, and requires her to swear her innocence over the sacred ashes which it contains. At first, the consciousness that Hamlet could only suspect her crime, gives her resolution to commence the oath with firmness; and Talma, with an expression of countenance which cannot be described, awaits, in triumph and joy, the confirmation of her innocence, — and seems to call upon the spirit which had haunted him, to behold the solemn scene which proves the falsehood of its mission. But the very tenderness which he shews destroys the resolution of his mother, and she hesitates in the oath she had begun to pronounce. His feelings are at once changed, — the paleness of horror, and fury of revenge, are marked in his countenance, and his hands grasp the steel which is to punish her guilt: But the agony of his mother again overpowers him, at the moment he is about to strike; he appeals for mercy to the shade of his father, in a voice, in which, as M. de Stael has truly said, all the feelings of human nature seem at once to burst from his heart, and, in an attitude humbled by the view of his mother’s guilt and wretchedness, he awaits the confession she seems ready to make: and when she sinks, overcome by the remorse and agony which she feels, he remembers only that she is his mother; the affection which had been long repressed again returns, and he throws himself on his knees, to assure her of the mercy of Heaven. We do not wish to be thought so presumptuous as to compare the talents of the French author with the genius of Shakespeare, but we must be allowed to say, that we think this scene better managed for dramatic effect: and certainly no part of Hamlet, on the English stage, ever produced the same impression, or affected us so deeply. We are well aware, however, how very different the scene would have appeared in the hands of any other actors than Talma and Madle. Duchesnois, and that a very great part of the merit which the play seemed to possess, might be more justly attributed to the talents which they displayed. At the conclusion of this great tragedy, which has become so popular in France, and in which the genius of Talma is so powerfully exhibited, the applause was universal; and after some little time, to our surprise, instead of diminishing, became much louder; and presently a cry of Talma burst out from the whole house. In a few minutes the curtain drew up, and discovered Talma waiting to receive the applause with which they honoured him, and to express his sense of the distinction paid to him.

Comments: Archibald Alison (1792-1867) was a Scottish lawyer and historian, author of the ten-volume History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (1833-1843). Jean-François Ducis helped introduce Shakespeare to the French through adaptations of the plays in which elements of the plot were sometimes radically altered. His adaptation of Hamlet was made in 1760. Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. François-Joseph Talma performed in a number of Ducis’s adaptations. Hamlet’s mother was played by Joséphine Duchesnois. Madame de Staël wrote about Talma’s Hamlet in De l’Allemagne (1813).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

On Actors and the Art of Acting

Playbill from The Theatrical Observer, 16 November 1832

Source: George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1875), pp. 16-17

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Drury Lane Theatre, London, November 1832

Text: Kean’s range of expression, as already hinted, was very limited. His physical aptitudes were such as confined him to the strictly tragic passions and for these he was magnificently endowed. Small and insignificant in figure, he could; at times become impressively commanding by the lion-like power and grace of his bearing. I remember, the last time I saw him play Othello, how puny he appeared beside Macready, until in the third act, when roused by Iago’s taunts and insinuations, he moved towards him with a gouty hobble, seized him by the throat, and, in a well-known explosion, “Villain! be sure you prove,” &c., seemed to swell into a stature which made Macready appear small. On that very evening, when gout made it difficult for him to display his accustomed grace, when a drunken hoarseness had ruined the once matchless voice, such was the irresistible pathos—manly, not tearful—which vibrated in his tones and expressed itself in look and gestures, that old men leaned their heads upon their arms and fairly sobbed. It was, one must confess, a patchy performance considered as a whole; some parts were miserably tricky, others misconceived, others gabbled over in haste to reach the “points”; but it was irradiated with such flashes that I would again risk broken ribs for the chance of a good place in the pit to see anything like it.

Comments: George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was an English literary critic and philosopher, best-known now as the partner of the author George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). The ailing Edmund Kean, reaching the end of his career and his life, and William Macready disliked one another. Kean had previously avoided acting opposite his younger rival. Macready complained at how Kean upstaged him by taking up unfair positions on the stage. Kean died just a few months later, on 15 May 1833.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Gigantic Spectacle of Julius Caesar Thrills 40,000: Receipts $50,000

Theatre site, Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood, Calif., Library of Congress, pan 6a02019. Click here for larger image

Source: Guy Price, ‘Gigantic Spectacle of Julius Caesar Thrills 40,000: Receipts $50,000’, Los Angeles Herald, 20 May 1916, p. 1

Production: William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Beachwood Canyon, Los Angeles, 19 May 1916

Text: GIGANTIC SPECTACLE OF JULIUS CAESAR THRILLS 40,000: RECEIPTS $50,000

Forty thousand persons, the largest gathering in the history of Southern California, saw the production of “Julius Caesar” in the natural amphitheater at Beach wood canyon, Hollywood.

This estimate was made by officers of the Hollywood Carnival association, under whose auspices the production was given, today.

It was estimated that $50,000 was derived from the sale of tickets. After the cost of the production is paid for the remainder of this sum will be turned over to the Actors’ Benefit Fund.

The forty thousand persons reveled in a panorama of Shakespeare : such as probably never was seen in j America outside of the wonderfully beautiful Greek theater which nestles in the sun-rimmed Berkeley hills.

As a spectacle they saw something far more wonderful, far more impressive, far more inspiring than their eyes had ever before been privileged to feast upon. They perceived at one heavenly glance the ultra of dramatic artistry and theatric wonderment.

TRIBUTE TO AVON BARD

Confirmation was lacking, but the imagination necessarily does not have to be over-elastic to believe that the Avon bard, whose tercentennial the world is now celebrating, must have turned over in his flower and tribute bedecked grave and smiled with appreciative satisfaction as he visualized this wondrous triumph of brains and beauty. Had he himself lived to direct “Julius Caesar,” I doubt if the vast realism of it all would have been greater.

Every seat in the huge open-air auditorium available to accommodate a human being was occupied; the hilltops to the east, to the west and to the north, wreathed in Stygean darkness held their quota of avid listeners, and hundreds crowded the entrance, disappointed at not being able to enter the gates.

ANNUAL AFFAIR

It was a notable event, one that will remain glued to the memory as long as Shakespearean drama lives—and that will be for always. The only disturbing regret protruding itself through the splendor of the occasion was the fact that the sponsors are unable to stage the performance another night, or for several nights, in order to make possible that more may witness it.

But then we have the consoling promise of those generous-impulsed gentlemen that steps will be taken to make the festival an annual affair, with Hollywood giving its financial backing and Los Angeles its moral and artistic support.

KEEP FAITH

So much had been said of the plans for the production and the public hopes had been buoyed to so high a pitch that even the slightest flaw might have sent some, at the close of the performance, plodding down the mountain side crestfallen.

But the management, the directors and the players kept faith with us and in place of disappointment we ambled through the myriad of wooden benches fully satisfied and content, yea, happy, that we had the foresight to procure a ticket. Not a flaw – I mean a serious one, for in all tremendous undertakings there are bound to creep little discrepancies—not a discordant note save for a rubble of voices coming from the unseated during the opening act, not an intrusion to mar the beauty injected itself so as to be prominently visible to the naked eye; everything ran as smoothly and perfectly as a freshly-pruned racing motor — the entrances, the exits, the complex lighting apparatus, the mob scenes, and last, but by no means least, the competent symphony orchestra of 75 pieces guided by a baton in the master hand of Wilbur Campbell.

40,000 SURPRISED

A stranger next to me expressed surprise that a thing of so gigantic size and multifarious important angles could be operated with so little confusion. His remark is an epitome of the opinion of 40,000 people.

At no time and in no place since the history of man has a community had opportunity to sit through three hours of such delightful entertainment and view so rare and splendid a picture. To those on the outside its divine loveliness is unbelievable; certainly to us it was as though we were in a trance, or riding through a strange, wonderful land in a fairy chariot. It was an optical intoxication new to us.

Here is what we saw in our fairy dream, only it wasn’t a dream at all. Directly in front of us lay a street of Rome, its beautiful Roman architecture glistening in the rays of powerful spotlights: on the right stood the Roman theater, revered in history and play; in the background to the extreme left and towering above the clouds circling the Capitollne hill, was the Homan capitol, within whose walls the mighty Caesar proclaimed his laws and received the tumultuous homage of his people.

HILLS OF ROME

Winding snake-like from the street to the capitol ran a roadway which the king’s subjects ascended and descended at various junctures in the play. And as walls for the theater were the seven hills of Rome. Not the minutest particle of setting was theatrical in texture —all was the real, home-spun stuff built life-size and as near replicas of the originals as history would permit. No curtain drops with scenery painted thereon interjected themselves to destroy the illusion. Everything was real — and beautiful.

And into this colorful setting paraded the pompous Caesar (Theodora Roberts), the conspirator Brutus (Tyrone Power), Marc Anthony (William Farnum), Cassius (Frank Keenan), Lucilius (Tully Marshall), Casca (De Wolf Hopper), Calpurnia (Constance Crawley), Cato (Douglas Fairbanks), Portia (Sarah Truax), Flavius (Wilbur Highy), Cleopatra (Grace Lord), and other well-known and respected citizens of old Rome, escorted by thousands of prettily costumed women and children and an impressive throng of male onlookers.

COMBINATION OF STARS

Most of you are intimately familiar with the Individual artistry of these players, though personally you may never have witnessed their work. Picture, then, if you can, the effect of their combined histrionic efforts. Mere words become feeble in describing a result so exquisitely charming; the eyes and ears alone can drink of its dramatic fragrance. Numerically, the cast was much too large for individual praise, it being remembered that approximately 5000 participated, though the work of each warrants superlatives, so let one word suffice for the behavior of all. That word is “superb.”

The dancing girls were headed by dainty Mae Murray, Marjorie Riley and Capitola Holmes. This trio occupied the center of a picture that for grace and pulchritude and bewitching costumes is not often equaled.

CREATIVE GENIUS

No small credit for the success of the production is due Raymond Wells and his corps of assistants for the superb handling of the cast and entire production. For one thing the performance revealed Mr. Wells’ extensive knowledge of Shakespearean works and his creative genius for giving expression to the same.

There are many others to whom congratulations are not out of place, such men. for instance, as Charles A. Cooke, director general of the affair, and C.C. Craig, his chief aide, but they have reaped their reward in the appreciation that the production commanded from the spectators and the everlasting good will of the Actors’ Fund, in whose behalf the affair was staged.

CROWD ENTRANCE

It was regrettable, indeed, that the early part of the play was unwarrantedly interrupted by late comers.

They were compelled to crowd the entrance while the first scene was in progress, and, bring unable to procure seats, vented their anger by participating in a demonstration wholly ungentlemanly and unladylike, seriously hindering the performers and making it difficult for those seated to follow the threads of the play’s story.

For this condition the management was equally to blame with the disturbers. Lax attention at the main entrance resulted in hundreds swarming into the amphitheater after the play’s progress had begun whereas had these late arrivals been held in leash until the first Intermission ho disagreeableness would have shown on the surface.

The following telegram was received by the Hollywood Carnival association just prior to the “curtain raising” on “Julius Caesar”;

Hollywood Carnival Ass’n,
Hollywood. Calif.

Deeply grateful for Actors’ Fund and myself for the tremendous and magnificent action of all concerned in the production of Julius Caesar, for such a glowing tribute of affection and great service In the Interest of a worthy professional charity.

DANIEL FROHMAN.
Pres. Actors’ Fund of America.

Comments: Guy Price was dramatic editor at the Los Angeles Herald. The production he describes of Julius Caesar was one of the most spectacular and extraordinary Shakespeare productions ever staged. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Many events marking the tercentenary were held around the world. In Los Angeles, the Hollywood Businessmen’s Club decided to put on a spectacular stage production of Julius Caesar, at Beachwood Canyon, a natural amptitheatre in the Hollywood hills. For the major players in the case they invited members of the film industry, which had only recently started establishing studios in the Hollywood area. the film industry provided technical and production talent (including the director of the production Raymond Wells), stage properties (D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and the Universal Film Corporation all contributed, while Gelenral Electric provided the lighting), and performers. Among the big name film and stage stars were Theodore Roberts (Julius Caesar), Tyrone Power Sr. (Brutus), Frank Keenan (Marc Antony), William Farnum (Cassius), Constance Crawley (Calpurnia), DeWolf Hopper (Casca), Douglas Fairbanks (Young Cato), Sarah Truax (Portia), Horace B. Carpenter (Decius Brutus), Gibson Gowland (Cinna), Tully Marshall (Lucilius) and Mae Murray (Barbaric Dancer).

The remainder of the reported cast of 5,000 was made up of local residents and school students. The production was seen by 40,000 people, and featured vast visual spectacles including a gladiatorial arena and a re-enactment of the Battle of Philippi which commenced half a mile down the canyon before working its way up to the stage, lit all the way by magnesium flares. Roman sentries guided the audience to their seats. Music was supplied by a 75-piece orchestra. Profits of $2,500 went to the Actors’ Fund of America. Following the demands for a repeat production, a cut-down indoor production was staged at the Majestic Theatre, Los Angeles. Regrettably, only a single photograph of the set seems to survive to show something of the ambition of this one-off extravanganza, and despite the Hollywood involvement, it seems no one thought to film any of it.

Links: Copy at California Digital News Collection
Hope Anderson, ‘When Shakespeare Came to Beachwood Canyon: “Julius Caesar,” 1916‘, Under the Hollywood Sign, 9 February 2010
Luke McKernan, ‘Shakespeare in the Canyon‘, The Bioscope, 26 June 2007
Mary Mallory, ‘Hollywood Heights — ‘Julius Caesar’‘, archive of The Daily Mirror blog

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kemble as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Hannah More

Source: William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Hannah More, vol. 1 (London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1836), pp. 68-70

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Drury Lane, London, 30 May 1776

Text: Adelphi, 1776.
I imagine my last was not so ambiguous but that you saw well enough I staid in town to see Hamlet, and I will venture to say, that it was such an entertainment as will probably never again be exhibited to an admiring world. But this general panegyric can give you no idea of my feelings; and particular praise would be injurious to his excellences.

In every part he filled the whole soul of the spectator, and transcended the most finished idea of the poet. The requisites for Hamlet are not only various, but opposed. In him they are all united, and as it were concentrated. One thing I must particularly remark, that, whether in the simulation of madness, in the sinkings of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion, or in the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince; and in every variety of situation, and transition of feeling, you discovered the highest polish of fine breeding and courtly manners.

Hamlet experiences the conflict of many passions and affections, but filial love ever takes the lead; that is the great point from which he sets out, and to which he returns; the others are all contingent and subordinate to it, and are cherished or renounced, as they promote or obstruct the operation of this leading principle. Had you seen with what exquisite art and skill Garrick maintained the subserviency of the less to the greater interests, you would agree with me, of what importance to the perfection of acting, is that consummate good sense which always pervades every part of his performances.

To the most eloquent expression of the eye, to the hand-writing of the passions on his features, to a sensibility which tears to pieces the hearts of his auditors, to powers so unparalleled, he adds a judgment of the most exquisite accuracy, the fruit of long experience and close observation, by which he preserves every gradation and transition of the passions, keeping all under the controul of a just dependence and natural consistency. So naturally, indeed, do the ideas of the poet seem to mix with his own, that he seemed himself to be engaged in a succession of affecting situations, not giving utterance to a speech, but to the instantaneous expression of his feelings, delivered in the most affecting tones of voice, and with gestures that belong only to nature. It was a fiction as delightful as fancy, and as touching as truth. A few nights before I saw him in ‘Abel Drugger;’ and had I not seen him in both, I should have thought it as possible for Milton to have written ‘Hudibras,’ and Butler ‘Paradise Lost,’ as for one man to have played ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Drugger’ with such excellence.

I found myself, not only in the best place, but with the best company in the house, for I sat next the orchestra, in which were a number of my acquaintance (and those no vulgar names) Edmund and Richard Burke, Dr. Warton, and Sheridan.

Comments: Hannah More (1745-1833) was a British playwright, poet and philanthropist. This letter from 1776 is reproduced in her biography. 1776 was David Garrick‘s final year as a stage performer, and his performance in Hamlet was 30 May 1776 at Drury Lane, a production that sold out in two hours. He had played Abel Drugger in The Alchemist for the last time on 11 April 1776. More, a personal friend, saw several of Garrick’s final performances at this time.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 28 December 1666

Productions: William Shakespeare (adapted by William Davenant), Macbeth and Roger Boyle, Henry the Fifth, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and at court (Whitehall) respectively, London, 28 December 1666

Text: Up, and Creed and I walked (a very fine walk in the frost) to my Lord Bellasses, but missing him did find him at White Hall, and there spoke with him about some Tangier business. That done, we to Creed’s lodgings, which are very pretty, but he is going from them. So we to Lincoln’s Inne Fields, he to Ned Pickering’s, who it seems lives there, keeping a good house, and I to my Lord Crew’s, where I dined, and hear the newes how my Lord’s brother, Mr. Nathaniel Crew, hath an estate of 6 or 700l. per annum, left him by the death of an old acquaintance of his, but not akin to him at all. And this man is dead without will, but had, above ten years since, made over his estate to this Mr. Crew, to him and his heirs for ever, and given Mr. Crew the keeping of the deeds in his own hand all this time; by which, if he would, he might have taken present possession of the estate, for he knew what they were. This is as great an act of confident friendship as this latter age, I believe, can shew. From hence to the Duke’s house, and there saw “Macbeth” most excellently acted, and a most excellent play for variety. I had sent for my wife to meet me there, who did come, and after the play was done, I out so soon to meet her at the other door that I left my cloake in the playhouse, and while I returned to get it, she was gone out and missed me, and with W. Hewer away home. I not sorry for it much did go to White Hall, and got my Lord Bellasses to get me into the playhouse; and there, after all staying above an hour for the players, the King and all waiting, which was absurd, saw “Henry the Fifth” well done by the Duke’s people, and in most excellent habits, all new vests, being put on but this night. But I sat so high and far off, that I missed most of the words, and sat with a wind coming into my back and neck, which did much trouble me. The play continued till twelve at night; and then up, and a most horrid cold night it was, and frosty, and moonshine. But the worst was, I had left my cloak at Sir G. Carteret’s, and they being abed I was forced to go home without it. So by chance got a coach and to the Golden Lion Taverne in the Strand, and there drank some mulled sack, and so home, where find my poor wife staying for me, and then to bed mighty cold.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The two plays he saw on this one day were William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, as adapted by William Davenant, and a Henry the Fifth that was in all probability the play by Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, rather than Shakespeare’s play.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/12/28/

The Dramatic Censor

Source: Francis Gentleman, The Dramatic Censor; or, Critical Companion, vol. 1 (London: J. Bell, 1770), pp.196-198

Text: Portia has fallen to the lot of several capital ladies; and indeed she not only requires, but merits the exertion of eminent abilities; Mrs. WOFFINGTON, whose deportment in a male character, was so free and elegant, whose figure was so proportionate and delicate, notwithstanding a voice unfavourable for declamation, must, in our opinion, stand foremost; her first scene was supported with an uncommon degree of spirited archness; her behaviour during Bassanio’s choice of the caskets, conveyed a strong picture of unstudied anxiety; the trial scene she sustained with amiable dignity, the speech upon mercy she marked as well as any body else; and, in the fifth act, she carried on the sham quarrel in a very laughable manner; to sum up all, while in petticoats, she shewed the woman of solid sense, and real fashion; when in breeches, the man of education, judgment and gentility—Mrs. ABINGTON treads so much in her steps, and has so many of the happy requisites just mentioned, that we make no scruple of placing her second upon the whole; nay, in some particular places, we think her equal.

Miss MACKLIN undoubtedly speaks the part in an unexceptionable manner, but we deem her rather too petit in person and expression; Mrs. CLIVE, who obtained no small share of applause, was a ludicrous burlesque on the character, every feature and limb contrasted the idea SHAKESPEARE gives us of Portia in the spirited scene she was clumsy, and spoke them in the same strain of chambermaid delicacy she did Lappet or Flippanta; in the grave part—sure never was such a female put into breeches before!—she was awkwardly dissonant; and, as if conscious she could not get through without the aid of trick, flew to the pitiful resource of taking off the peculiarity of some judge or noted lawyer; from which wise stroke, she created laughter in a scene where the deepest attention should be preserved, till Gratiano’s retorts upon the Jew, work a contrary effect.

Mrs. YATES, with an amazing degree of condescension has lately vouchsafed to perform Portia, for that night only—that night only, the phrase is so modest, that we repeat it—if she can do the part better than any body else, the public in general, and the managers in particular, have a right to expect her in it whenever the play is done; if she is not so capable as the person in possession of it, why should she impose upon her friends, even for one night; this is one out of many low, theatrical finesses, thrown out as baits to catch gudgeons; however, if this lady thinks criticism has any cause to languish for a repetition of her Portia, she is utterly mistaken -, since it is certain that, deducting her great name, and some merit in the fourth act, she has shewn nothing more than that capital talents may occasionally dwindle into very middling execution.

Comments: Francis Gentleman (1728-1784) was an Irish actor, playwright and theatrical commentator. His book The Dramatic Censor analyses the theatrical repertoire of the period, with assessments of the individual roles as played by the leading actors he had seen. The Irish actress Peg Woffington (1720-1760) first played Portia in London in 1743. The other actresses described are Frances Abington (1737-1815), who played Portia many times in the 1760s; Maria Macklin (1733-1781), who also played Portia frequently in the 1760s; Kitty Clive (1711-1785), who first performed Portia in 1741 and many times thereafter, despite regular comment that she was unsuited to the role; and tragic actress Mary Ann Yates (1728-1787), whose one-off benefit performance in The Merchant of Venice took place at Covent Garden on 27 March 1770.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philip Hone

Astor Place Opera-House Riots, via NYPL Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-280e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 359-362

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Astor Place Opera House, New York, 7 and 10 May 1849

Text: May 8.—Mr. McCready commenced an engagement last evening at the Opera-House, Astor place, and was to have performed the part of “Macbeth,” whilst his rival Mr. Forrest, appeared in the same part at the Broadway theatre. A violent animosity has existed on the part of the latter theatrical hero against his rival, growing out of some differences in England; but with no cause, that I can discover, except that one is a gentleman, and the other is a vulgar, arrogant loafer, with a pack of kindred rowdies at his heels. Of these retainers a regularly organized force was employed to raise a riot at the Opera-House and drive Mr. McCready off the stage, in which, to the disgrace of the city, the ruffians succeeded. On the appearance of the “Thane of Cawdor,” he was saluted with a shower of missiles, rotten eggs, and other unsavoury objects, with shouts and yells of the most abusive epithets. In the midst of this disgraceful riot the performance was suspended, the respectable part of the audience dispersed, and the vile band of Forresters were left in possession of the house. This cannot end here; the respectable part of our citizens will never consent to be put down by a mob raised to serve the purpose of such a fellow as Forrest. Recriminations will be resorted to, and a series of riots will have possession of the theatres of the opposing parties.

May 10. — The riot at the Opera-House on Monday night was children’s play compared with the disgraceful scenes which were enacted in our part of this devoted city this evening, and the melancholy loss of life to which the outrageous proceedings of the mob naturally led.

An appeal to Mr. McCready had been made by many highly respectable citizens, and published in the papers, inviting him to finish his engagement at the Opera-House, with an implied pledge that they would stand by him against the ferocious mob of Mr. Forrest’s friends, who had determined that McCready should not be allowed to play, whilst at the same time their oracle was strutting, unmolested, his “ hour upon the stage” of the Broadway theatre. This announcement served as a firebrand in the mass of combustibles left smouldering from the riot of the former occasion. The Forresters perceived that their previous triumph was incomplete, and a new conspiracy was formed to accomplish effectually their nefarious designs. Inflammatory notices were posted in the upper ward, meetings were regularly organized, and bands of ruffians, gratuitously supplied with tickets by richer rascals, were sent to take possession of the theatre. The police, however, were beforehand with them, and a large body of their force was posted in different parts of the house.

When Mr. McCready appeared he was assailed in the same manner as on the former occasion; but he continued on the stage and performed his part with firmness, amidst the yells and hisses of the mob. The strength of the police, and their good conduct, as well as that of the Mayor, Recorder, and other public functionaries, succeeded in preventing any serious injury to the property within doors, and many arrests were made; but the war raged with frightful violence in the adjacent streets. The mob — a dreadful one in numbers and ferocity—assailed the extension of the building, broke in the windows, and demolished some of the doors. I walked up to the corner of Astor place, but was glad to make my escape. On my way down, opposite the New York Hotel, I met a detachment of troops, consisting of about sixty cavalry and three hundred infantry, fine-looking fellows, well armed, who marched steadily to the field of action. Another detachment went by the way of Lafayette place. On their arrival they were assailed by the mob, pelted with stones and brickbats, and several were carried off severely wounded.

Under this provocation, with the sanction of the civil authorities, orders were given to fire. Three or four volleys were discharged; about twenty persons were killed and a large number wounded. It is to be lamented that in the number were several innocent persons, as is always the case in such affairs. A large proportion of the mob being lookers-on, who, putting no faith in the declaration of the magistrates that the fatal order was about to be given, refused to retire, and shared the fate of the rioters. What is to be the issue of this unhappy affair cannot be surmised; the end is not yet.

May 11— I walked up this morning to the field of battle, in Astor place. The Opera-House presents a shocking spectacle, and the adjacent buildings are smashed with bullet holes. Mrs. Langdon’s house looks as if had withstood a siege. Groups of people were standing around, some justifying the interference of the military, but a large proportion were savage as tigers with the smell of blood …

May 12. — Last night passed off tolerably quietly, owing to the measures taken by the magistrates and police. But it is consolatory to know that law and order have thus far prevailed. The city authorities have acted nobly. The whole military force was under arms all night, and a detachment of United States troops was also held in reserve. All the approaches to the Opera-House were strictly guarded, and no transit permitted. The police force, with the addition of a thousand special constables, were employed in every post of danger; and although the lesson has been dearly bought, it is of great value, inasmuch as the fact has been established that law and order can be maintained under a Republican form of government.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. The cause of the riot at the Astor Place Opera House on 10 May 1849 was the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor William Charles Macready, which was blown up by the press during Macready’s 1848-40 tour of the United States, cast in Britain vs. America terms. A performance of Macready’s Macbeth at the Astor Place in New York on 7 May 1849 was halted after rioting in the theatre. On 10 May another performance was interrupted by rioting among rival supporters of the two actors which spilled out into the streets. The New York State Militia was called, and at least twenty-two people were shot dead, with dozens more injured.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Gielgud’s Letters

Source: Letter from John Gielgud to Irene Worth, 20 June 1970, in Richard Mangan (ed.), Gielgud’s Letters (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 356

Production: William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Mermaid Theatre, London, 19 June 1970

Text: Went to Jonathan Miller’s Tempest at the Mermaid yesterday (greatly praised by the critics) with Fabia Drake. Couldn’t bear Jonathan M.’s production – ponderous, ugly, slow and flat-footed, no sense of grouping or movement though a packed and enthusiastically attentive young audience – hundreds of pretty girls with crackling shopping bags and sunglasses pushed up into their hair. Only Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter) most interesting as a real child Miranda, very plain indeed, but hushed and eagerly intense – one could really believe she’d never seen a man except her Dad! – and a very good red-haired, toothless, Negro Caliban. But the rest – my God – awful pseudo Velasquez costumes, everyone in black including Ariel, a grave 30-year-old Negro also, and three awful coloured goddesses who never looked at the lovers and sang the whole Masque to pseudo Monteverdi. At Cambridge the whole thing would deserve praise as an interesting and promising experiment but not in London.

Comments: John Gielgud (1904-2004) was a British actor and theatre director. The production he saw of The Tempest at the Mermaid Theatre was directed by Jonathan Miller. Graham Crowden was Prospero and Norman Beaton Ariel. Caliban was played by Rudolph Walker.

Daniel Webster in England

Source: Edward Gray (ed.), Daniel Webster in England: Journal of Harriette Story Paige, 1839 (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), pp. 72-73

Production: William Shakespeare, Henry V, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 29 June 1839

Text: In the evening by particular request, and invitation from Macready the actor, we went accompanied by Colonel Webb, of New York, and Captain Stockton to witness the representation of Shakspeare’s play of King Henry V. Mr. Webster had gone to the House of Lords, and contrary to our expectations, did not get to “Covent Garden” for the evening. This play has been restored by Macready, who takes the part of the King, his performance was admirable; too much cannot be said in praise of his unwearied efforts to restore the British drama to its former reputation and eminence. The King is seen in the play, to embark from England at the Tower Stairs, with his Court, retinue &c., then the Cliffs of Dover are seen, and the whole fleet appears sailing onward. The sun sets, the moon rises, finally, the French coast of Boulogne is visible, and gradually becomes more distinct. The bombardment takes place, then clouds appear, roll over, and conceal all. Then comes a prologue, or “chorus,” spoken by a figure, dressed as Time; he keeps the spectators informed of all the events that have occurred, and behind him, is a pictorial exhibition, of these scenes occurring, so skilfully managed that it seems reality. After this, the clouds disappear and the actors are again visible, but before each act, Time with his chorus appears, and from him we learn the course of events. Covent Garden is a spacious, large theatre; our box was on a level with the orchestra, and below the stage, but so near to it, that our opportunity for enjoying this novel play, was particularly good.

Comments: Harriette Story Page (1806-1863) was the sister-in-law of the American politician Daniel Webster. She accompanied him of his European visit in 1839. The production she saw of Henry V at Covent Garden starred William Macready, with scenery and dioramas designed by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield. Part of what Macready ‘restored’ to the play was the part of the Chorus, cur from earlier productions.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust