Thursday, October 24, 2013

What about the ghost?

I was reading Dinah Mulock's short story "The Last House on C---- Street," when I came across some interesting theatrical tidbits in this curious little ghost tale. The narrator is speaking to an older woman, Mrs. MacArthur, when the old lady recalls the first theatre outing of her youth: "we went to see Hamlet at Drury Lane, with John Kemble and Sarah Siddons!"

Kemble and Siddons have been the topic of previous postings on this blog, but I was intrigued by how Mrs. MacArthur describes the performance later on in the story: "Ah, you know nothing of what a play is, now-a-days. You never saw John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons. Though in dresses and shows it was far inferior to the Hamlet you took me to see last week, my dear--"

The short story comes from 1856, so it would have been written around the height of Charles Kean's "antiquarian" productions of Shakespeare that aimed at historical authenticity. While the "dresses" and "shows" of these more modern productions really were an improvement over the neo-classical productions of Kemble and Siddons, they can't compare with Mrs. MacArthur's memories of her first time in a theatre. As she puts it, "nothing subsequent ever drove from my mind the vivid impression of this my first play." That's particularly impressive, given that subsequent events include the ghost story at the heart of Mulock's tale.

Mrs. MacArthur also remarks that that night, "my father had gone to bed, laughing heartily at the remembrance of the antics of Mr. Grimaldi, which had almost obliterated the Queen and Hamlet from his memory." Joseph Grimaldi was of course one of the great clowns of that era, though I'm not sure if he is supposed to have played the role of the gravedigger or if he allegedly starred in an after-piece for this fictional production of Hamlet.

And what about the ghost? Well, you'll have to read the story to find out about that!