Sunday, May 31, 2009

E. H. Sothern's 1901 Acting Version of "Hamlet"

To celebrate the second installment of The Henriad broadcasts this weekend, I’ve decided to dip into my Shakespeareana volumes for this week’s book.

The full title is Hamlet, A Tragedy: The E. H. Sothern Acting Version, published by McClure, Phillips & Co. of New York in 1901. Meant to commemorate the short-lived 1900 staging of Hamlet by noted American actor Edward Sothern (1859-1933), this edition of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy presents the text, stage directions, and cast of the play as it was produced by Daniel Frohman at New York’s Garden Theatre between September and October 1900. Historically particular “acting versions” (sometimes called “production versions”) such as this are excellent evidence for theatre historians seeking to recover evidence for how Shakespeare’s plays were received at specific moments in the past. A subsequent edition of Sothern’s Hamlet was printed by McLure in 1903 and, since at least 2004, Kessinger Publishing and Gardners Books have both offered unremarkable print-on-demand editions of the book as well. 

Bound in papered boards with a colored illustration on the cover (the illustration shows Horatio restraining Hamlet during Ophelia’s burial; one dealer online claims that this art is “after painting by McLellan” but I’m not certain to what painting this refers), the spine is cracking slightly where it meets up with the front and back boards and the paper is hanging loose from the back hinge. Though a beautiful and rather uncommon piece of turn-of-the-century biblioart, the book is not exceptionally valuable on the market ($25-$45). Throughout the book are inserted 14 photographic plates showing Sothern’s staging of various scenes and characters; these plates are of unparalleled help in reconstructing how early twentieth century America perceived of Hamlet, but they are also interesting in their own right as part of the first generation of photographs to be bound into books (a practice that was just beginning between 1870-1900). There is no marginalia in my copy, though the evidence of some mild damage (the cracking and loose spine, some leaves working slightly loose, and a significant tear in the lower outer corner of p. 47/48) suggests it has been read in its day.

The pages measure 14cm x 22.5cm and are made of a heavy, though darkening, paper with vertical 2cm chain-lines. No watermarks are evident. The edges of the pages are rough-cut in places, and some have darkened particularly severely over time. The book was printed in octavo with no signatures on the gatherings but with pagination running from [i]-v for the preliminaries and from [1]-136 for the play proper (given its length, I estimate that an uncut performance of this script would run over four hours...!).

The contents of the book are as follows: blank flyleaf with evidence of some repairs done to the inner hinge connecting it to the front board); half-title; photographic plate (on verso of leaf) showing Sothern as Hamlet, captioned “To be or not to be.”; tissue leaf (coming loose of the binding at the top); two toned title-page (“Hamlet” in red letter) with publisher’s ornate device imprinted in the middle of the page (the imprint illustration shows an idealized early modern printing shop including pressman, compositor, proofer, and a fancily dressed man who may be either the stationer himself or perhaps the author), copyright notice on the verso; “Dramatis Personae” of the Garden Theatre production’s cast (see below); inner half-title; the play itself; final blank flyleaf.

It is obvious that Sothern himself was the main attraction for the book (or, at least, as with most members of his profession, he saw himself as such and had some hand in overseeing the publication) as nearly all of the photographs -- with the exception of the Ophelia series between pp. 98 and 107 -- feature him or scenes that include him. That he allowed Virginia Harned so many photographs in the book may be attributable to the fact that she was, at the time, his second wife. The plates and their captions, in order of their appearance in the book, are:

Frontispiece: Sothern as Hamlet, “To be or not to be.”

Between pp. 10 & 11: The Danish court gathering around Arthur R. Lawrence as Claudius, the new king; “And now my cousin Hamlet and my son.”

Between pp. 12 & 13: Hamlet in a melodramatic pose with a chair; “I shall in all my best obey you, madam.”

Between pp. 28 & 29: On the (patently fake) battlements, Hamlet crouches in awe before William Harris as the Ghost; “I am thy father’s spirit.”

Between pp. 64 & 65: Hamlet, this time sitting on the chair, resting his hand on a metal post of some sort sticking out of a (patently fake) rock, staring wistfully into the air, gesturing gracefully with his other hand; “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

Between pp. 76 & 77: The court (many of whom are wearing Arabian-style turbans?) and Charlotte Deane as the queen (looking terrified) and the king (looking bored, out at the audience) gathered around and above a small proscenium arch within the proscenium arch, framing the climactic poisoning moment of the Mousetrap; “What do you call the play? The Mouse-trap.”

Between pp. 78 & 79: The same setting but the court is in an uproar, all are standing, Claudius is at center stage about to swoon, Hamlet holds a torch up above his head but the king fends the prince off with a sweep of his robe, on the opposite side of the robe from Hamlet two guards gesture menacingly with their spears at the prince; “You shall see anon, how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.”

Between pp. 98 & 99: Virginia Harned as Ophelia, wistfully strumming a lyre; “He is dead and gone, lady.”

Between pp. 100 & 101: Ophelia inviting the viewer to see the collection of flowers spread out before her on the ground; “At his head a grass green turf, at his foot a stone.”

Between pp. 102 & 103: Ophelia, back of her hand to her forehead in grief, lyre neglected at her side; “And in his grave rain’d many a tear.”

Between pp. 104 & 105: Ophelia, her hair down in tangles suggesting lunacy, clutches flowers in one hand and admires a single flower held above her head with her other; “There’s a daisy!”

Between pp. 106 & 107: Vincent Sternroyd as Laertes, joined by the king, queen, and other mourners, gather around Ophelia’s funeral bier; “There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke; when down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook.”

Between pp. 118 & 119: Hamlet, dressed now all in black traveler’s robes and hat, gestures towards Yorick’s skull in his hand, and gazes sadly at the camera; “Alas, poor Yorick!”

Between pp. 120 & 121: Hamlet and Laertes come to blows in the graveyard, surrounded by the courtiers, mourners, king and queen, guards, and what looks like a group of nuns (?), in the background are many two-dimensional trees and a (patently fake) church facade; “The devil take thy soul.”

Between pp. 132 & 133: The court (including a foppish Osric, the king and queen, and an unnamed court jester) watch as Hamlet triumphantly grabs Laertes’s sword from his hands; “The exchange of the foils.”

Between pp. 134 & 135: Several dead bodies litter the stage as Hamlet’s body is carried off under a hedge of soldiers’ spears, Henry Carvill as Horatio, on his knees, reaches longingly after the procession, George E. Bryant as Fortinbras (dressed like something out of Wagner’s
Ring Cyle) points the way authoritatively off stage, and in the down left corner a group of courtiers look mildly concerned about the dead Laertes at their feet (one of the courtiers stares blatantly out of the scene and into the camera); “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage.”

The individual actor portrait photographs may have been taken at a different time and place, and by a different photographer, from the full stage photographs; they have the quality of having been staged artificially for the camera in a studio and they bear a signature (“Schloss N.Y.) not present on any of the stage photographs. In many of their details, some of the stage photographs look like they may have been altered after the picture was taken, particularly in the way of having extra scenery painted on in the background.

The cast of Frohman’s production included many notable (and some not so notable) New York performers. This is the cast list in the order in which it is presented in the book (the links will direct you to the Internet Broadway Database entry for that performer):

Arthur R. Lawrence as Claudius

E. H. Sothern as Hamlet

Edwin Varrey as Polonius

Vincent Sternroyd as Laertes

Henry Carvill as Horatio

Richard Lambart as Osric

Taylor Holmes as Rosencrantz

E. F. Bostwick as Guildenstern

Basil West as “A Priest”

George E. Bryant as Marcellus

Sydney C. Mather as Bernardo

Daniel Jarrett as Francisco

E. Raymond as Reynaldo

Leonard Outram as the First Player

Arthur Scott as the Second Player

Rowland Buckstone as the First Gravedigger

John J. Collins as the Second Gravedigger

George E. Bryant (again) as Fortinbras

Charlotte Deane as Gertrude

Virginia Harned as Ophelia

Adelaide Keim as the Player Queen

The cast also included a great deal of unnamed supernumeraries as “Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, messengers, Followers of Fortinbras, and other Attendants”. The Garden Theatre production was directed by Fred Williams, produced by Daniel Frohman, with sumptuous set design by Edward G. Unitt, one of the most prolific Broadway designers of the 1880s-1920s.

The 1900 production, a particularly elaborate and spectacular staging of Hamlet that Sothern had been dreaming up for decades (it was his first professional performance in a Shakespeare role!), opened on Monday, September 17, hard on the heels of a particularly successful staging of the play at the Knickerbocker Theatre with popular sensation Johnston Forbes-Robertson in the title role and Gertrude Elliott as Ophelia. Despite this shadow of competition, Sothern’s production opened to strong reviews, but it ran for only sixteen performances before a bit of particularly bad luck forced it to close early. One night, less than two weeks into the run, during the sword fight of the final scene Sternroyd accidentally stabbed Sothern in the foot with his foil. The injury was minor and would have been inconsequential but that it became infected and Sothern was stricken with severe blood poisoning as a result. 

Several months later, on Christmas Eve, the production finally reopened on tour in St. Louis, where it was evidently well received. This means that the show was probably in its revival when the book was published (the photograph of the duel scene does not directly show how Sothern may have been stabbed in the foot, but his recklessly haughty expression, combined with his bare-handed grasp on Laertes's blade, suggests how the accident may have come about...). But there must have been something about this production that drew the ire of the theatre gods, for within a few months disaster struck again; while on tour in Cincinnati, a fire in the playhouse destroyed all of Unitt’s sumptuous costumes and sets. Sothern decided to call it quits. He returned to New York, and didn’t resume playing in Shakespeare’s plays until 1904 when he began to collaborate with his third wife, Julia Marlowe, in a number of very well-received productions both in the city and on tour (including a revival of his Hamlet, photographed -- once again -- by Schloss of New York). Sothern was a very active and successful actor for the remainder of his life and even appeared in some early films in the mid-1910s.

Returning to the book, a close examination of the text -- in conjunction with the photographs -- provides a fairly comprehensive view of how the show was staged. The text is largely a conflation of the 1604 quarto and 1623 folio editions and I suspect that a closer collation would reveal that it follows fairly precisely the text as presented in one of the standard editions of the day, such as the 1866 Globe edition. The scene-breaks, however, don’t seem to follow a logical pattern, such as that traditionally followed from the 1676 quarto; III.i, for example, bizarrely includes both the “To be or not to be” sequence and the Mousetrap. Given more time and space, it might be intriguing to look closer at certain passages to check for modernizations, emendations, or borrowings from the so-called “bad quarto” of 1603 (which had been discovered in 1823), but for now this brief foray will have to suffice.

In addition to the language of the play, the stage directions -- nearly all of which have been added by the director -- spell out in precise detail how various scenes both looked and moved. In one place, the telling inclusion of an exact stage action suggests that the book was printed precisely from a copy of the acting text used for the production (either Sothern’s own or perhaps the stage manager’s): on p. 47, in II.i, after Hamlet’s cryptic response to Polonius, “You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will more willingly part withal: except my life, except my life, except my life”, there is a parenthetical stage direction reading “(Down L.)”. This kind of stage jargon does not appear in the other added stage directions of the play, most of which are elaborate scene-setting statements. In other places, the added stage directions provide more clues as to how the play was performed, such as the moving image given by the direction for Hamlet’s exit following his accidental murder of Polonius in III.ii -- “(Hamlet weeps over body of Polonius.)” -- or the more delicate staging called for when Hamlet asks Ophelia “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” -- “(Lying down at Ophelia’s feet.)” --  and, my favorite, the inadvertently graphic image of the First Gravedigger who several times is assigned the rather wonderfully disgusting direction: “(Throws up a skull.)”.

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