A Shakespearean Contretemps: 1830s

An 1825 production of Romeo and Juliet, the tomb scene.

An 1825 production of Romeo and Juliet, the tomb scene.


While yet a mere youth I was acting in the old city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during the vacation of the regular theatrical season, with a portion of the company attached to the Arch Street Theatre, Philadelphia. Miss Eliza Riddle, one of the most beautiful and accomplished actresses of the American stage, and a great favorite in Philadelphia, was the leading lady of the “star combination,” as it is generally termed in provincial towns.

Miss Riddle, was afterward a popular star-actress in the principal theatres of the South and West. She became the wife of Mr. Joseph M. Field, the eccentric comedian and the witty editor of one of the popular papers of St. Louis. Their only child is our talented young countrywoman, Miss Kate Field.

That my readers may realize the situation of affairs in connection with the incident to be related, I will state that the building in which we were acting was originally a barn, and had been fitted up, as the playbills say, “regardless of expense” to answer the purposes of a theatre. The rear stone wall, which formed the back part of the stage, still retained the large double folding doors of the barn, while the yard at the rear, with its sheds, was used for the accommodation of the proprietor’s cows. The double doors were made available for scenic purposes when shut, having a rude landscape scene painted on the boards, and when they were open they afforded the means of increasing the size of the stage, which was done by laying down a temporary floor on the outside directly opposite the opening, a wooden framework, covered with painted canvas, forming the sides, back, and top of the extension. The play was Romeo and Juliet, Miss Riddle performing the part of Juliet, and I that of Romeo.

The extra staging described had been set up in the barnyard and enclosed by the canvas walls, and thus room was obtained for the “Tomb of the Capulets.” The front part of the tomb was formed of a set piece, so called, painted to represent the marble of the sepulchre, in which were hung the doors forming its entrance, and at the top was painted in large letters “The Tomb of the Capulets.” Within the tomb, and against the canvas which formed the rear wall, was a small wooden platform, on which was placed a compact mass of hay, shaped like a pallet and nicely covered with black muslin, and on this hay-stuffed couch was to rest the body of the dead or drugsurfeited Lady Juliet.

In view of the gloomy surroundings of the tomb, and particularly of its close proximity to the barnyard, it would not be considered, under any circumstances, a pleasant resting-place for a young lady, especially of an imaginative turn of mind. Before the rising of the curtain on the fifth act, however, I had carefully inspected the premises and looked after the proper disposal of Juliet in the tomb, so that when the doors were to be thrown open in sight of the audience there might be no obstacle to the full view of the sepulchred heroine.

Everything was pronounced in a state of readiness, and, receiving from Miss Riddle an earnest request to hurry on the scene which precedes the catastrophe of the tragedy, I left her, her last words being, “Oh do hurry, Mr. Murdoch! I’m so dreadfully afraid of rats!”

The curtain rose. Romeo received the news of the death of his Juliet, in despair provided the fatal poison, and rushed to the graveyard. Here he met and despatched his rival, the county Paris, burst open the doors of the tomb, and there, in the dim, mysterious light, lay Juliet. The frantic lover rushed to her side, exclaiming—

Oh my love! my wife! Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty: Thou art not conquered; beauty’s ensign yet Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, And death’s pale flag is not advanced there. Ah, dear Juliet, Why art thou yet so fair?

Here, observing strange twitchings in the face and hands of the lady, I stooped during my last line to ask her in a stage-whisper what was the matter; to which she sobbingly replied, “Oh, take me out of this! oh take me out of this, or I shall die!”

Feeling assured of the necessity of the case, and wishing to bring the scene to a close, I seized upon the poison and exclaimed—

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavory guide! Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on The dashing rocks, thy seasick weary bark!

Smothered sobbings and suppressed mutterings of “Oh, Mr. Murdoch, take me out! you must take me out!” came from the couch. Now fully alarmed, I swallowed the poison, exclaiming—

Here’s to my love!

Then, throwing away the vial and with my back to the tomb, I struck an attitude, as usual, and waited for the expected applause, when I was startled by a piercing shriek, and, turning, I beheld my lady-love sitting up wringing her hands and fearfully alive. I rushed forward, seized and bore her to the footlights, and was received with shouts of applause. No one had noticed the byplay of the tomb, nor did the dying scene lose any of its effects, for Juliet was excited and hysterical and Romeo in a state of frantic bewilderment. The curtain fell amid every manifestation of delight on the part of the audience.

And now for the scene behind the curtain. All the dead-alive Juliet could gasp out was, “Oh, oh, the bed! the bed! Oh, oh, the rats! the rats!’ I ran up the stage, tore open the pallet, and there—oh, horrors !—sticking through the canvas walls of the tomb, were the horns and head of a cow. Though the intruder had smelt no rats, she had in some mysterious way scented the fodder, and after pushing her nose through an unfortunate rent in the canvas proceeded to make her supper off the hay which formed the couch of the terrified Juliet.

The Stage: Or, Recollections of Actors and Acting, James Edward Murdoch, 1880: p. 125-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Theatre, in our time, has known few such moments…

The delight of the audience at the lovers’ revival is reminiscent of nineteenth-century playwrights who either sanitised Shakespeare’s “indecencies” or wrote happy endings to the tragedies. Robert “Romeo” Coates was one of the most notorious Shakespearean editors, as well as an utterly abysmal interpreter of the Bard’s works. He was known to repeat the tomb scene several times as the audience howled and clamoured for his blood or an encore.  Mrs Daffodil suspects that Coates would have relished the scenario experienced by Mr Murdoch and his Juliet and perhaps debuted a new version entitled, “The Tomb of the Cow-pulets.”

In a previous Shakespearean post, the author speculates about how a sensible Victorian Juliet, would have conducted herself as a winsome widow. 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


3 thoughts on “A Shakespearean Contretemps: 1830s

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare 400: A Shakespearean Contretemps: 1830s | Rogues & Vagabonds

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