John Martin-Harvey and Fan Letters to Hamlet

Hamlet - quilting in progress Hamlet – quilting in progress

I have been reading a treasure-trove of correspondence sent to the Edwardian Actor-Manager, Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944), including fan letters relating to his many performances of Hamlet. I have been lucky enough to have access to some of the original letters which Martin-Harvey kept in his personal collection.

Martin-Harvey first played Hamlet on November 14 1904 at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. The role was included in his repertoire for years afterwards, with his wife Nina de Silva as Ophelia, and seems to have been a particular favourite with the actor and his audiences.

Mr Martin Harvey and Miss Nina de Silva as Hamlet and Ophelia Mr Martin Harvey and Miss Nina de Silva as Hamlet and Ophelia

Martin-Harvey wrote extensively about Hamlet, his thoughts on the characters and individual scenes, and even gave an address – Some Reflections on Hamlet – to the Royal Society of Literature in 1916. In his autobiography, he reflected that playing Hamlet was “fatiguing. Here the hero is plunged almost into a state of high tension with the news about the appearance of his father’s spirit, a tension which increases almost to snapping point after his interview with the ghost; all this, remember, is only the first act. Afterwards, the strain comes and goes in a succession of waves, more or less intense.”

Reflections on Hamlet Some Reflections on Hamlet

All this reflection resulted in a constantly evolving performance and quite a lot of correspondence. Martin-Harvey received letters from the great and the good – including the poet W B Yeats, who wrote in 1909 that the actor’s performance was improving: “I think this performance beyond all comparison a finer and simpler thing than that of five years ago. I thought then that you sacrificed something of Hamlet’s dignity to his emotional nature. I felt that your Hamlet was too bewildered, too alarmed a soul to be the great prince we imagine, but now you have got the balance better.”

But it is the letters from the general public that I find most interesting. Audiences felt that they could write with both praise and criticism – and the fact that the letters still survive is an indication that they were read and perhaps even taken seriously.

John D from Dublin wrote on December 23 1905 that “I saw your Hamlet on opening night – the entrance was a little too gloomy and aged in my opinion,” but “your address to the ‘Players’ was splendid and the two soliloquies were all that could be desired.” Stanton C went to see the play in Liverpool in a critical mood but found himself swept away by the performance: “This is my first letter to an actor or any public man, I do not ask or invite a reply, nor am I after your autograph; but just ask you to accept this poor acknowledgement of a great obligation.” Mr Q from Dublin wrote to say that he “saw a performance so beautiful – so finished – so real,” and then asked a favour: “My youngest son, aged 20, is deeply bitten – he has some aptitude for the stage. Would you have a few minutes to spare at the Theatre Royal any morning to see him?”

My favourite Hamlet fan letter comes from an anonymous lady from Middlesbrough who signed herself as “A working class woman (quite of the ‘lower orders’) who loves good acting.” She wrote to say the performance “left me astonished! amazed! stupefied! Never have I seen anything like it.” This lady wasn’t to know that this letter would be kept by Martin-Harvey – but it was and here it is:

A letter from A letter from “a working class woman who loves good acting.”

And, in my postcard collection, I have an excited message sent to a Miss O of Nottingham to say “November 24th 1905 – have got tickets. Will you come and have tea with us that day at 6.30 and we will go on together?” Miss O is one of my favourite Martin-Harvey fans – in an earlier post I wrote about her postcards featuring Martin-Harvey in his most famous play, The Only Way. I’m glad to think she saw Hamlet too.

Nov 24th 1905 - Have got tickets! Nov 24th 1905 – Have got tickets!

There is something very moving about these heartfelt letters surviving for over a century. Apart from being a fascinating insight into theatrical history, I love the idea of these people sitting down to convey their thoughts about an actors’ performance, not knowing that the person to whom they were addressed would keep them so that they still survive today.

I wanted to add something to this outpouring of emotion. Reading all these letters inspired a small quilted piece featuring John Martin-Harvey as Hamlet. I used a postcard sent in 1906, printed on to fabric, as the starting point, and thought about the hopes, dreams and sheer enjoyment that can be found in the theatre as I sat down to sew.

Hamlet - a little quilt Hamlet – a little quilt

Sir John Martin-Harvey, The Only Way, and a Precious Piece of Fabric

John Martin-Harvey and Nina De Silva as Sydney Carton and Mimi in The Only Way

John Martin-Harvey and Nina De Silva as Sydney Carton and Mimi in The Only Way

As a quilter I keep a lot of fabric at home but the most precious piece of fabric in my possession is part of an old theatrical costume from over a century ago. It is very fragile so I hardly ever get it out to look at, let alone touch – I worry about its further disintegration. It is a silk sash on which someone has written the famous words spoken by Sydney Carton before he meets his death on the Guillotine at the climax of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The sash belonged to an actor, Sir John Martin-Harvey (22 June 1863 – 15 May 1944), who made his name playing Sydney Carton in a play called The Only Way, based on Dickens’ novel.

The Sash worn by Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way

The Sash worn by Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way

It is thanks to the perilous state of the sash that the quote from Dickens can be seen; it was hidden, written into the lining – presumably by Martin-Harvey himself – but over the last hundred years the fabric has come adrift somewhat and so the secret wording can now be seen.

Of course I never saw Martin-Harvey on stage but luckily for film and theatrical historians, there is a lasting record of his most famous role. The Only Way was filmed in 1926, directed by Herbert Wilcox. Thanks to its survival we can still see the star performance of Martin-Harvey as the dissolute but ultimately heroic Sydney Carton in this silent film version.

I remember vividly the first time I saw the film. I was in Cambridge in the Spring of 2012 and it was playing as part of the British Silent Film Festival. The Only Way was on my must-see list; I love Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities is probably my favourite of his novels. I knew nothing of Martin-Harvey and nothing about the film but context was provided by the musician Neil Brand who, in introducing it, said it was a rare opportunity to see one of the great Edwardian Actor-Managers at work. Neil said that, at some screenings, as the film drew to a close, the projector would be turned off and Martin-Harvey himself would appear and recite the famous final lines – an experience loved by audiences.

To begin with, I was underwhelmed. The film began with a long, slow prologue about the Evremonde family, and, when Martin-Harvey appeared on the screen, my immediate response was “He is far too old to play Sydney Carton.” By the time the film was made, Martin-Harvey was 63 and had been playing the role of Carton on stage for 27 years. I started to anticipate grand theatrical gestures and wondered if I could slip out without disturbing too many people.

And then something happened – one of those transient moments that transform a performance entirely.

For you and any dear to you, I would do anything.

For you and any dear to you, I would do anything.

The scene is Dr Manette’s house in London. Carton comes visiting. He loves Lucie Manette but knows he cannot expect her to return his love. Instead, he tells her that he would do anything for her and for anyone she loves. And during this scene, Martin-Harvey picks up some rose petals that are lying on the table and runs them through his fingers. And that was that. That small movement transformed him. He was Sydney Carton. His tour de force at the Tribunal. The devotion of his servant, Mimi, that he fails to notice. The brilliant final scenes in the Bastille alongside other prisoners waiting for death. His inspiring courage in Mimi. And, of course, the last words: “It is a far, far better thing.” I was completely transfixed.

Since that screening, I have amassed quite a collection of Martin-Harvey items. Some of my favourites are postcards – not so much because of the pictures they feature, but because of what is written on the back. It is very clear that Martin-Harvey had a very loyal following; some fans would make a note of each theatrical performance they went to (often multiple times to The Only Way) or write down their favourite lines.

He was brought before the curtain 5 times and then had to speak.

He was brought before the curtain 5 times and then had to speak.

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Others seem to have been taking part in organised postcard swaps, like a Miss O’Rourke from Nottingham, who received lots of pictures of Martin-Harvey in 1904. One, however, seems to have been from a friend with a sense of humour and a cryptic message: The Doctor is making me send this. 


I am afraid of sending you cards of Martin Harvey that you may have already, wrote B.P. to Miss O’Rourke in November 1904 on a postcard showing the actor in The Breed of the Treshams. Is there anyone else? From the evidence of the cards in my collection, it would seem not.

A Miss Dobbings is asked by an anonymous friend How do you like “His Serene Highness” in this garb?

How do you like "His Serene Highness" in this garb?

How do you like “His Serene Highness” in this garb?

A.C.H. saw a postcard as I came home and thought perhaps you would like it, and sent it to her friend Enid Downs in Hull, while Maggie Harwall was sent Another one for your collection by her friend Nellie. In 1910, Eva Henderson was asked by her friend Anna How do you like the gentleman on the other side? Miss Smith of West Dulwich has clearly been quite specific about the card she wanted, as her correspondent Georgie writes I do hope that this is the postcard you wanted. They had several of him but this is the only one I could see where he was sitting down. 

"The only one where he was sitting down."

“The only one where he was sitting down.”

And apart from the devoted fans, there are those intent on teasing their friends. In 1907 Mr Jack Thompson received a card featuring Hamlet with the immortal words Hallo fathead. How’s the weather up there? It’s rotten here. I am thy father’s ghost. 

"I am thy father's ghost."

“I am thy father’s ghost.”

Hallo Fathead!

Hallo Fathead!

I am intrigued by these postcards. Who were the people who sent them? Who collected them? So many clues can be found on these items and it opens up a world of theatrical devotion from more than a century ago.

You can still watch The Only Way at the BFI Mediatheque. Unfortunately, the viewing copy has no music and is completely silent – not the way it was intended to be shown – but it is there nevertheless. My advice is to just go with it. It starts slowly. But there is a moment when it gets under your skin. And from then on, it is wonderful.