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.

Sometimes a gigantic turnip, with cavities scooped out to represent the orbits, nose, and mouth, and occasionally a barber’s wig-block has to do duty for the skull of the Jester. I have seen a star tragedian soliloquising over a ball of brown paper, and pointing to an imaginary mouth where hung those lips that he had kissed he knew not how oft. On more than one occasion during my experience the property-man, who scorned to look at a plot of “Hamlet,” and who professed to “know the play backwards, sir,” proved his profound (?) knowledge of the play by ignoring the skull altogether. When at the last moment a ball of paper, or anything brown, has been extemporised, “curses, not loud, but deep,” have fallen upon the head of the offending property-man, who has had to steer clear of the irate tragedian for the rest of the evening.

Tom Saunders, the property-man at the Coaltown Theatre, was a clever artisan; he could make anything, from a fiddle to a string of sausages. He was an admirable modeller, and quite competent to mould in papier mâché a skull that would deceive the eye of any sawbones who chanced to be in front. But Tom had a serious failing, he was fond of “twos of Irish,” and on the day in question he had been twoing it a little too-too. Of course, he “knowed the piece backwards, sir,” but he forgot all about the skull, and the rascal’s neglect was not discovered before the end of the third act.

The theatre was crammed. The élite of Coaltown were present, and the performance was under the “distinguished patronage of the mayor, Mr. Ferram, the great colliery proprietor.” The guilty Claudius was just rushing off, howling for “lights, lights,” when Jackson, the stage-manager, dashed into my dressing room, and, with a look of disgust upon his face, exclaimed, “That beast Saunders is tight again, and he’s forgotten the skull. You’ve finished as the Player King, and you’ve nothing more to do, have you?”

“No, sir.”

“Run to the nearest barber’s and borrow a wig-block.”

I finished dressing, rushed out of the theatre, and hurried to the principal hairdresser’s shop. To my dismay, I found it closed. There was a bell at the private door, which I rang furiously. A stupid-looking girl appeared.

“Where’s your master?”

“He be gone to the theayter to see Hamlick.”

“Have you got a wig-block you could lend me?”


“A wig-block. I saw one yesterday in the shop window with some golden ringlets on it. Take off the curls and give it to me at once. I’ll make it all right with your master tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll give yer in charge if yer doant be orf.” So saying, she slammed the door in my face.

After muttering a few words which were anything but complimentary to the fair sex of Coaltown, and barber’s servants in particular, I hailed an empty cab which was passing.

“Drive me to the doctor’s,” I shouted to the cabby, as I leaped into the fly.

“Which on ’em, sir?”

“I don’t care a hang, whichever you like, only be quick.”

“All right, sir. I ‘spose Doctor Coffin’ll do for yer?”

In two minutes the cab stopped at Doctor Coffin’s door. A sleepy-looking page-boy answered my vigorous pull at the bell.

“Dr. Coffin at home?”

“No, sir, he’s gone to the play with the mayor.”

“Confound it, all Coaltown is at the show. Here, cabby, take me to another doctor – the nearest.”

“Dr. Vomer, sir?”

“All right. I’ll pay you double fare if you’ll stir up that old screw of yours.”

The promise of a good tip acted like magic upon man and beast, and away we rattled towards the High Street.

Dr. Vomer was at home. The servant led me into the surgery, and a dapper little man, with a shining pate fringed with a few snowy white hairs, smiled b«ndly as he entered the room.

“Doctor,” I exclaimed excitedly, ” will you lend me your skull ? ”

“My skull, sir, my skull! Oh, I see. Pray, be calm, my dear sir, rest yourself a bit, and then we will discuss your case.”

He evidently concluded that I was an escaped lunatic.

“Pray do not misunderstand me. I thought you might have a skull.”

“Indeed, I have, sir.”

“Will you favour me with the loan of it for half an hour – only half an hour?”

“I should be most happy to oblige you, but” – looking at his watch – “it is almost supper-time, and when one sups one’s skull is indispensable.”

“You have a skeleton, sir?”


“Do you mind disconnecting the skull? I am an actor, sir. We are playing ‘Hamlet’ tonight. It is the mayor’s bespeak; and the performance will come to an untimely end unless I can borrow your skull for the graveyard scene.”

“Oh, I begin to understand,” said the little man, laughing heartily. “Certainly, if you will take care of it.” And, going to his osteological cabinet, he handed me the coveted article.

“A thousand thanks,” I exclaimed, as I opened the street door, and rushed to the cab. I arrived at the theatre with my ghastly burden just as the prompter was ready to ring up. The treasure was deposited in Ophelia’s grave, and mixed with a shovelful of mould and a few beef and mutton bones obtained for an “order” at the cook-shop next door.

The gravedigger, when he saw the skull, exclaimed, “What a beauty!” The drop ascended, and the fifth act began. When Hamlet picked up the head of the Jester there was a murmur of admiration from the audience, Yorick’s skull was a great success.

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