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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.