I love Hark, a vagrant more than is seemly for someone who won’t read graphic novels and ‘doesn’t like comics’. Every one’s a winner, but this… this is a fucking comic about nineteenth Shakespeare performance history, guys! It’s my DPhil in a line drawing!* I love it. I include it because it reminds me of working for the RSC. Although David Tennant’s fans (self included) were usually a lot better behaved (apart from the guy who chased him backstage during one interval, or the people who hid behind his car. Or the two Chinese girls who sat outside the stage door, all day, every day, for a week).
The cartoon hysteria’s not unmerited. Edwin Booth was pretty awesome. As well as introducing a sorely needed note of introspection to mid-Victorian Shakespearian acting, he saved Abraham Lincoln’s son from going under a train, perfected the Charles Kean Crawl (the traditional moment in a Victorian Hamlet when Our Hero writhes about on his stomach, at his uncle-father and aunt-mother’s feet…. okay, so, less introspective) added some rug-rumpling, and was the brother of the guy who SHOT ABRAHAM LINCOLN (see start of paragraph). It makes me want this book. Even by the Macready-fancying, death-fetishising, Shaw-obsessing, gender-bending standards of my usual Victorian theatre favourites, Booth’s exciting.
I think he’s also the earliest nineteenth-century actor whose voice is still available to us in recorded form. More famous is Ellen Terry reciting Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained […]”, dating from 1912, and which I first heard at the British Library, during marginally related research into Wilde. But Booth’s 1890 recording of Othello Act I, Scene 3 is 22 years older (and 9 years older than the first silent Shakespeare film, Beerbohm Tree’s 1899 King John). You can download here (the embedded file begins “Most potent, grave and reverend signiors”), or listen to a slightly cleaner extract at YouTube (clip 1 begins “My story being done”). I love hearing nineteenth-century actors at work, although as yet it doesn’t affect my critical methodology. I wonder if it will. It makes me think about the possible impact of audio and film recordings on the “archaeological” approach to performance stories: I’ve never yet read a performance studies work on nineteenth or even early twentieth-century drama that seriously considered audio recordings as a source. Perhaps that’s because, as far as I can tell, these records seem to exist outside theatrical performance (I seem to remember reading that Ellen Terry’s recording was part of a lecture – although those, of course, married academic and theatrical experience for her listeners, and are key to my doctoral research), or perhaps there simply isn’t enough material. It’s still worth investigating. Note to self, then.
*I wish this comic were my DPhil.‡
‡Be careful what you wish for.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.