Antonio de Pereda: The Knight's Dream - detail (1640, Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain)Antonio de Pereda: The Knight's Dream – detail (1640, Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain)

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"Hamlet" – An Analysis of Prompt Books

Sir Henry Irving

(1874 – 1878/79)

At least as suggestive as the prompt books of Davenant and Betterton, David Garrick and Edwin Booth, if not even more so, are the prompt books of Sir Henry Irving, the first one of which – from the famous 1874 production that ran for 200 consecutive nights at the Lyceum Theatre – remained in the actor's possession until his death and then passed through successive pairs of Thespian hands, likewise still traceable on the book's pages, to the grandnephew of Irving's longstanding and equally celebrated stage partner Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928); Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000). At Gielgud's death it was bequeathed to the London Garrick Club, along with a set of exquisite, naturalistic watercolour sketches of individual scenes.

Irving had made his way to the London stages after hundreds of appearences in the provinces, and although emphatically scholarly in his approach to Shakespeare's works in print (a new edition of which was in fact published under his own auspices), as an actor he had a keen sense of the (melo)dramatic. Thus, it was in the 1874 production that, pursuant to the prompt book's instructions, audiences would for the first time ever experience "lights down" in the entire house and the sounding of a "ghost music" ("at all times [to be] played a long distance off. and at the same place each time") at every single entrance of the Ghost of Hamlet's father (and correspondingly, "lights up" again at his exit): it is not hard to imagine the startling effect of these devices, underscored even further by the ringing of bells upon "witching time of night," at the Ghost's entrance during Hamlet's altercation with Gertrude and, repeatedly, during Ophelia's burial, and even an organ at the end of the graveyard scene, on an audience which, until then, had been used to gaslit theatres, from the corridors to the stage, throughout the entire performance (and would often even have found the stage less well lit than corridors, stalls and galleries).

It is also obvious that Irving, like Booth, was almost exclusively interested in Hamlet's personal, interior drama; he, too, radically cut all lines and even entire scenes that would have deflected the audience's attention from the Prince's inner turmoil (or interfered with Irving's own interpretation of the Prince's character). Thus, not only the exchange between Polonius and Reynaldo is omitted from the beginning of the second act but Act II, Scene 1 is missing in its entirety – neither Reynaldo's mission to France nor Ophelia's tormented report of Hamlet's intrusion into her closet is allowed to get in the way of this singular focus on the Prince. Moreover, if you ever entertained the notion that "To be, or not to be" might be a clandestine dialogue with Ophelia because on her father's instructions she happens to be present during Hamlet's ruminations, think again – in Irving's version she exits at these same ruminations' beginning and then re-enters on the dot for the start of the "nunnery" scene – and not surprisingly, Fortinbras is again not allowed a single stage appearance at all: Act IV, Scenes 1 through 4 (the aftermath of Polonius's murder, and the near-encounter between Hamlet and Fortinbras upon the former's temporary exit from Denmark) are missing as well as the surviving cast members' concluding exchange after Hamlet's death; it's "curtain" after "The rest is silence." (Irving did, however, seem to enjoy the "sponge" exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz enough to make him save it – after a fashion – by finagling it into the similarly-coloured "play upon this pipe" contretemps between the Prince and Guildenstern after the "play within the play.") The combined effect of these directorial choices is not only an almost single-handed focus on the Prince himself but also a greater intimacy, not least between Hamlet and Horatio: As such, the Prince's friend alone (not also Sentinel Marcellus) attempts to restrain Hamlet from following the Ghost (though his lines are pared down to the shorter First Folio version of this scene); and unlike Ophelia, Horatio (who is not even indirectly alluded to in any character's lines) is allowed to be present ("r.u.e.") during "To be, or not to be."

As in the versions by, particularly, Davenant and Betterton on the one hand and Booth on the other hand, there is also, once more, quite a bit of whitewashing going on: Not only did Irving's audiences (like those of Davenant/Betterton and Booth) never hear Hamlet vow "O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" after having found his own valour to come short in comparison with Fortinbras's; they also never learned that Hamlet had sent his two schoolfellows to the "sudden death" awaiting the Prince himself in England on Claudius's orders (as Act V, Scene 2, like in Booth's productions, opens with Osric's appearance); and we find the same concessions made to Victorian sensibilities with regard to Gertrude's description of orchids ("long purples") in her report of Ophelia's death as those flowers "that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them" and with regard to the idea of having a pre-pubescent boy appear as the Player Queen (though in this particular instance, the line "Pray God your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not crack'd within the ring" is virtually the only thing missing from Hamlet's welcome to the Players). Perhaps most interestingly, again as in Booth's version, in the final duel both Osric's "Nothing neither way" at the end of the duel's third, inconclusive round and Laertes's subsequent "Have at you now!" are cut, which makes it appear that the duelists' fatal exchange of rapiers occurs during a legitimate shuffle within the still-ongoing third round, not after that round has concluded and Laertes should, by rights, not be going after Hamlet at this particular moment at all.

In other places, however, the scholar in Irving made a point of reinserting lines not contained in the printed text used to create the prompt book, particularly where the omission's chief purpose seemed to have been the trimming of so-conceived "excess" textual fat; and the foreword of his second prompt book, printed in 1879 under the title "Hamlet, as Arranged for the Stage by Henry Irving and presented at the Lyceum Theatre on Monday, December 30th, 1878," goes to great lengths to provide a scholarly defense of the many visual features and "innovations" introduced in Irving's stage productions. Yet with regard to these, as well as with regard to Irving's textual choices, the prompt book is also remarkably unapologetic if compared with those by Davenant and Betterton on the one hand and Booth on the other hand:

"It is to be hoped that, both in what has been retained and in what has been omitted, a wise discretion has been exercised; and that the effectiveness of this grand tragedy as an acting play has been increased rather than diminished. Many persons find the ordinary acting editions of Hamlet too long, whilst others, in their enthusiasm for the poet's text, clamour for more of the omitted passages to be restored. The former must be content to exercise their patience, and the latter their self-denial,"

the editor's foreword states in conclusion.

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