Daniel Haynes is Quaritch Graduate Trainee in Rare Books & Ephemera at the Weston Library.
NOTE: hyperlinks to resources in this article require the John Johnson Collection Archive of Printed Ephemera (ProQuest project) to be open in a separate tab.
Shakespeare’s plays have enjoyed relatively uninterrupted performance since the Restoration. Although eighteenth-century dramatists liberally adapted many of the plays (the infamous example is Nahum Tate’s The History of King Lear) and shortened or restructured them to suit the tastes of the day, the later decades were marked by a renewed interest in the original texts. Bolstered by star turns from famous actors such as David Garrick and Edmund Kean, Shakespearean drama continued to rise in prominence. But as its popularity increased, so too did its theatrics: elaborate sets, musical interludes, tableaux, and other dramatic effects dominated the ‘Acting Editions’ of the Shakespearean nineteenth century, for better or for worse. W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) railed against these ‘trimmed and docked and interpolated and mutilated and generally desecrated’ versions of the plays. Nevertheless, the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of the century solidified Shakespeare’s central cultural role in British theatre.
The John Johnson Collection Archive of Printed Ephemera (ProQuest project) contains over 20,000 pieces of theatrical and non-theatrical material relating to nineteenth century entertainment, many revealing the development and reception of Shakespearean theatre. In total, over 2200 items match a name search for William Shakespeare in the Nineteenth Century Entertainment collection, showcasing the range and depth of Shakespeare’s popularity and permanence. Digital Bodleian contains 23 related items dating from the eighteenth century, including the earliest dated playbill from 1736. Twentieth century material (not currently digitised) can be found on the Allegro platform.
The earliest digitised item on the ProQuest project is a playbill from 1802 for the Theatre-Royal in Chester advertising a performance of Othello:
Here we can see several typical features of the nineteenth-century playbill, notably a performance following the main show – a reflection of the impositions placed on theatres by the Licensing Act 1737, which theatre managers worked around by staging musical or comedic interludes. More often farces or pantomimes, these secondary or even tertiary performances could nevertheless be popular in their own right. Popular pantomimes included A World of Wonders, or Harlequin Caxton & the Origin of Printing, which rotated in several London theatres (London Playbills folder 9 (17)). Milton’s Comus enjoyed a revival, with the score of the masque on sale from the ticket office (London Playbills Covent Garden vol. 1814-1815 (185)). On the 1802 playbill above, Charles Macklin’s Love a la Mode is performed more than 40 years after its composition. Notice that the actors in Othello also perform in Love a la Mode, perhaps indicative of the standing of actors outside of London.
Within London the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres dominated, with star actors in lead roles as demonstrated by this playbill for 1812:
John Philip Kemble (1757-1823), Charles Kemble (1775-1854), and Daniel Egerton (1772-1835) lead this performance of Julius Caesar (notice that, unlike their Chester counterparts, they do not perform in the farce and pantomime). The ‘favourite Comick Song’ between the play and farce is performed by the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837). Towards the bottom of the playbill is a notice of Sarah Siddon’s upcoming performances in five plays – four of these are Shakespeare, and the last, Macbeth, was indeed to be her last performance and emotional farewell.
Playbills could also advertise musical numbers for the evening, especially performances of familiar compositions, that formed part of the main play. Composers and musicians were listed alongside actors, and most likely commanded equal respect. At Covent Garden in 1814, ‘See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus punctuated Act II of Coriolanus (Provincial Playbills box Salisbury-Stratford (46)). Even more remarkably, in 1819 the same company staged The Comedy of Errors with lyrical interludes drawn from no less than eleven of Shakespeare’s other plays, three sonnets, and one ‘Come live with me’ pastoral (actually Marlowe’s) for good measure (London Playbills Covent Garden vol. 1819-1820 (80)).
Likewise, playbills emphasised exciting theatrical features to entice the prospective theatregoer:
It was not uncommon to find Shakespeare-themed performances following the main event. This advertisement for the ‘Legendary National Drama’ Shakespeare’s Early Days indicates some measure of how Shakespeare fever gripped audiences (to say nothing of the live animal performance):
With the completion of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1879, the bard’s preeminence in British theatrical history was cemented. The Theatre opened with an inaugural festival, and the first two plays performed were Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, followed by ‘A Concert of Shakespearean Music’. Helen Faucit (1817-1898) returned from retirement to play Beatrice, with Barry Sullivan (1821-1891) playing Benedick (and Hamlet the night after). This was a far cry from the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1797 which, despite a programme full of orations and a grand closing Ball, in fact featured no performances of the plays themselves!
Our modern reverence for Shakespeare owes much to the developments of the nineteenth century. Our obsession with big names in lead roles is stronger than ever (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet sold out in hours), likewise the belief that a good actor should cut their teeth at the RSC. Perhaps most importantly, the play’s the thing: like the later dramatists of the nineteenth century, such as William Poel (1852-1934) who pioneered the use of the open stage, we watch Shakespeare to be moved by his writing – not because we’re promised theatrics or a famous piece of classical music. Nonetheless, there are also many differences, and contexts alien to our own, which challenge our preconceptions of what staging Shakespeare could look like. Nowadays, who could imagine comic singing between acts, or a whole pantomime afterwards? While critics such as W. S. Gilbert and William Hazlitt bemoaned the bombastic performances of their day, perhaps there’s something to be learned. After all, who doesn’t want to see Mr. W. J. Hammond singing on a real donkey?