Edwin Booth, Library of Congress - in public domain
We’ll stay in Waterbury, Connecticut this week, but much farther in the past. The great 19th century actor, Edwin Booth, whose tribulations in Boston when his brother, John Wilkes Booth, murdered President Abraham Lincoln (discussed in this post on my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog) -- came to Waterbury for what became a groundbreaking performance in “Hamlet”.
We have this episode in Edwin Booth’s career mentioned in Curtain Time - The Story of the American Theater by Lloyd Morris (Random House, NY, 1953), wherein his acting company was scheduled for a single performance of Hamlet. The author does not specify the year. Tickets had been sold out, and the eager audience filled the house. The cast arrived by train, but their scenery and costumes did not.
This incident is also mentioned in the memoirs of Booth’s daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman in Edwin Booth - Recollections by His Daughter, (The Century Company, NY 1894).
When told of the problem, Booth calmly took charge, decided not to cancel the performance and stood out upon the stage before the curtain. He told the audience about the mishap, and said they would play “Hamlet” anyway, on the bare stage and in street clothes.
This was not an era for much experimentation in theatre, certainly with few attempts to “modernize” the classics, but reportedly the audience not only accepted the bare-bones production, but were riveted, captivated by this most masterful Hamlet.
As an unexpected finale, the costumes, props, and set pieces arrived at the theater just in time for the last two acts of this five-act play.
According to the author, this was the first-known incident of performing a Shakespearean play in street clothes and on a bare stage.
“Annoying as this incident was, he enjoyed the novelty of the experience,” his daughter writes, “and frequently referred to it in later years.”