Tag Archives: hamlet

George Frederick Cooke’s Body as a Prop

This sixth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

‘One man in his time plays many parts.’ Did George Frederick Cooke, the tragedian, when he personated Hamlet—he must have been a very indifferent Hamlet—ever think that his skull would be handled by a later Hamlet and appear upon the scene as the skull of Yorick? Yet this strange event came to pass. Cooke died in 1812, and was buried in the strangers’ vault of St. Paul’s Church, New York. Some ten years later Kean [Eric: The actor, Edmund Kean], fulfilling an engagement in America, resolved that due honour should be paid to the remains of the departed tragedian, whose memory he affected to hold in extraordinary veneration. With the permission of Bishop Hobart, the body was removed from the strangers’ vault to the public burial-ground of the parish, and a handsome monument was erected at Kean’s expense. Many lamenting friends and admirers attended the ceremony: ‘tears fell from Kean’s eyes in abundance,’ writes Dr. Francis, who relates the story in his ‘Old New York.’ But in the transfer of the coffin from the vault to the grave the dead actor’s body was subjected to strange mutilation. Kean possessed himself of one of the toe-bones; ‘it was a little black relic, and might have passed for a tobacco-stopper.’ Some other devotee stole the head; Dr. Francis may not have been the thief, but he became the receiver. He writes: ‘I may here perhaps invade the sanctity of burial transaction; but the occurrence to which I allude is innocent, and may be deemed curious as well as rare. A theatrical benefit had been announced at the Park, and “Hamlet” the play. A subordinate of the theatre hurried to my office at a late hour for a skull; I was compelled to loan the head of my old friend George Frederick Cooke. “Alas, poor Yorick!” It was returned in the morning, but on the ensuing evening, at a meeting of the Cooper Club, the circumstance becoming known to several of the members, and a general desire being expressed to investigate phrenologically the head of the great tragedian, the article was again released from its privacy, when Daniel Webster, Henry Wheaton, and many others who enriched the meeting of that night, applied the principles of craniological science to the interesting specimen before them. The head was pronounced capacious, the function of animality amply developed; the height of the forehead ordinary; the space between the orbits of unusual breadth, giving proofs of strong perceptive powers; the transverse basilar portion of the skull of corresponding width. Such was the phrenology of Cooke. This scientific exploration added to the variety and gratification of that memorable evening. Cooper felt as a coadjutor of Albinus, and Cooke enacted a great part that night.’

The toe-bone appropriated by Kean was not to be used as a property, but treasured as a relic of ‘the greatest creature that ever walked the earth:’ for so the dead tragedian was described by the living. His first words to his wife on his return from America were, ‘I have brought Charles [Eric: His son, actor Charles Kean] a fortune. I have brought something that the Directors of the British Museum would give ten thousand pounds for! But they sha’n’t have it.’ On special occasions he compelled his friends and associates to go down upon their knees and reverently kiss the precious relic. There can be little doubt that the actor’s intellects were at this time seriously deranged. The toe-bone was placed upon the mantel-piece; Mrs. Kean and the servants were strictly enjoined not to touch it upon any pretence whatever. It remained unmolested for several months. Occasionally the actor explained its merits to an intelligent visitor, otherwise it received his sole homage. ‘His wife detested it. The servants hated it. The maids were afraid of it. …At last—it was one dull evening, when Kean had been absent from home for several days, and his wife was tired of waiting and watching for him—the detested toe-bone presented itself to her sight, a few bitter words escaped her,… she eyed the object of her husband’s adoration with the most sincere disgust. …Finally she seized it, protecting her fingers with a piece of paper, and threw it out of window! Kean, discovering his loss, was furious. His wife held her peace. It was in vain that he examined and cross-examined the servants. “Mary,” he said at length, in tones of the deepest melancholy, ‘your son has lost his fortune. He was worth 10,000l. Now he is a beggar!”‘

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 291-293.)

Skulls used in Hamlet

This fifth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

Nor is he more necessary to pantomime and melodrama than to Shakespeare. Grimaldi, indeed, upon occasions, finding a scarcity of the appliances necessary to the business of harlequinade, resorted to the public markets, and made live pigs, ducks, and geese do duty for the usual property animals—the property-man, very likely, thinking poorly of such efforts of nature in comparison with the works of art he would have produced had time permitted; just as Mr. Johnson [Eric: His name is actually Alexander Johnston, not Johnson], the machinist of Covent Garden, viewing Chunee, the real elephant at Drury Lane, is reported to have said: ‘I should be very sorry if I couldn’t make a better elephant than that!’ But as a rule no performance is possible without the property-man. What, for instance, would ‘Macbeth’ be, bereft of its properties: its witches’ cauldron, eye of newt and toe of frog, apparitions, torches, crowned kings, the dagger with which Duncan is slain and the bloodstains which are afterwards to render Macbeth’s hands ‘a sorry sight’? How could ‘Hamlet’ be played without the partisans of Francisco and Bernardo, the fencing foils for the last scene, the poisoned cup out of which Gertrude is inadvertently to drink, the book Hamlet is to read, denouncing its slanders, the miniature portraits upon which he is to descant, and that famous skull—once adorning the shoulders of Yorick, the king’s jester—over which he is to muse?

This skull seems oftentimes to have been no figment or property of pasteboard, but a real thing—there being so many skulls about in the world, and obtainable at a small cost—although there is a story told of a sheep’s head being brought on as a property to serve the purpose of the scene, and enable Hamlet to meditate as usual and point the accustomed morals. This involved a bad compliment to the departed Yorick, however, and assumed the complete ignorance of the audience in regard to comparative anatomy. Nor is it to be believed that Hamlet could seriously repeat his philosophical speeches, gazing steadily the while at the straightened forehead of the innocent sheep. Macready relates in his Diary of his performing ‘ Hamlet’ at Boston, U.S., in 1848: ‘Was struck at the grave scene with the extraordinary weight of the skull which was given to me. I thought it was loaded; then it occurred to me it might be filled with earth—but no. Mr. Ayling observed to me it might be a negro’s skull; looking at the receding forehead, I perceived it was so. But, directly, this circumstance seemed to confirm to me Agassiz’s theory, that the brain did not develop itself after childhood; the brain does not grow, but the bone does. The weight of this skull went in confirmation of this ingenious theory.’ Of a subsequent performance at Richmond in the same year he writes: ‘Acted Hamlet, taking much pains, and, as I thought, acting well; but the audience testified neither sensibility nor enthusiasm, and I suppose it was either not good or “caviare to the general.” They gave me the skull, for Yorick’s, of a negro who was hung two years ago for cutting down his overseer.’

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 290-291.)

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, London 1870

A skull for Hamlet

From The Truth about the Stage, by Corin, 1885 (pp. 53-57)

Chapter 2: Stage Traps and Pitfalls – Stage Properties

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, London 1870
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, London 1870

Now, throughout the whole range of dramatic literature, there is no play easier to produce than Shakespeare’s noble tragedy of “Hamlet.” In the most wretchedly-appointed theatre an old green baize, a rampart set, a palace arch chamber, a back landscape, and a pair of castle gates are usually to be found. And what temple of the drama does not possess a couple of huge throne chairs, upholstered with Turkey twill and all ablaze with Dutch metal. The bare announcement that “Hamlet” would be played for one night was sufficient to gladden the hearts of the stage-carpenter and the property-man. The prompter would scribble his plots, i.e., lists of scenery and accessories required for the tragedy in a few moments, and many an experienced property-master would scorn to accept a “plot” of “Hamlet.” There is, however, one most important “property” used in the first scene of the fifth act of that tragedy, and its absence would be fatal alike to the Gravedigger and the Prince of Denmark. It is nothing more nor less than a human skull – Yorick’s skull! Now, the managers of some provincial theatres cannot boast of having in their heterogeneous collection of properties a real cranium viri. Consequently, the ingenuity of the property-man, that veritable Jack-of-all-trades, is frequently put to a severe test before a presentable substitute can be produced. Continue reading