Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

How a Shakespearean Fairy Flew: 1906

Miss Annie Russell as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. https://shakespeare.emory.edu/a-midsummer-nights-dream/msnd_russell_a_02_front/


In Every Way the Most Notable Shakespearean Offering That Has Ever Been Witnessed in Jackson

A Crowning Success.

[Miss Annie Russell’s] conception of “Puck,” is the most exquisite treat that has been given the American public in years. The loving mockery and elfish tricks of this household fairy present unique possibilities, and the charming little actress has taken advantage of each and every one of them. Her characterization of the role is the very embodiment of grace, delicacy and daintiness. There is something mysteriously and indescribably elfish about her “Puck,” that warms the cockles of the hart and makes the old young again. The witchery of her personal charm, the glint of her roguish eyes, the grace of her movement, the contagion of her laugh, form a perfect embodiment of what Shakespeare must have intended “Puck” to be, and if the great Bard and Avon could come to earth again and witness Miss Russell’s portrayal of his fanciful role, he would pronounce it thoroughly satisfying….

Never in the memory of the present generations of playgoers has there been such a production of Shakespeare’s fanciful comedy on such a vast scale. The offering Is embellished with mechanical perfection and the staging Is surrounded by artistic excellence never before approached…The flowers glow mysteriously when “Puck” touches them, owls blink solemnly on the tree boughs, fairies flit to and fro through the air with startling naturalness and precision, and every embellishment is wonderful in its originality and perfection. When Miss Russell makes her entrance in the third scene of the first act from aloft, lights on the branch of a tree, flits across to a mossy bank and settles down so softly that the tips of her dainty toes barely dint the downy landing, it looks like a defiance of the laws of gravitation, and forces the conclusion that the climax of fairyland realism has been attained in stage mechanics….

The audience last night marveled greatly over Miss Russell’s flights across the stage, and perhaps few realized the work that was behind that graceful act. Her entrance involves a secret of stage mechanism that is guarded like a jewel of rare price, and requires the alert work of six strong men.

It will perhaps be especially interesting to the ladies of Jackson to know what Miss Russell thinks of this flight. In chatting with the writer on this subject last night she said:

“If I were not an expert horse-woman I never could make that flight. Sounds strange doesn’t it? In the first place I want my friends to understand that I like flying through the air. It is a most exhilarating feeling to stand one instant firmly on the ground and the next to be switched off into space.

“The story of how it is done is most interesting. The apparatus used is in man of its details a secret—a series of wires weighted with bags of shot, worked through a clock-like arrangement, fitted with gear wheels, springs and bolts. It is this clock-like affair that holds the secret, and the owner guards it by removing it from the fly gallery each night and taking it home under his arm. All I know is that it can be so accurately adjusted that the wire will sustain a weight of 1,000 pounds or work just as well as if the weight is only one pound.

“The ticklish part of my flight is this. The machine must be adjusted to carry me between two fixed points. Now this is simple enough in the case of the flying fairies, because they start from one side of the stage and alight at a fixed point at the other side. In my case, I fly to a tree. Now this tree is set on the stage and it is a most difficult matter to set it in exactly the same spot each time. To be sure the stage is marked where the tree is to go, but the variation of a fraction of an inch makes all the difference in the world. That little difference would hurl me against the set piece and do no end of damage to some part of me. It is for this reason that each night, an hour before my flight is to be made, a bag of meal, of my exact weight, takes my place. Then the six men who work the apparatus yank the meal bag across the stage and into the set tree. As I watch that yank I am glad they do not rehearse with me. But once it is adjusted, my flight is as safe, and as sure, and as scientifically perfect as though I were walking across my own drawing room.

“But still there is considerable for me to do. When I land in the tree, I must steady myself in an instant, otherwise I would look like the bag of meal instead of like a bird. That’s where my expert horse-womanship comes in. When I fly from the tree to the stage, the most perfect workmanship is necessary on the part of the wire-workers, because if they did not give me slack the very instant my feet touch the stage I’d topple over like a nine pin.

Even when I do land, you must understand that I am girdled in a steel corset to which the wire is fitted. I land breathless, with this corset gripping me like the iron clad maiden of old. And if you think it is a simple matter to be gay and sprightly with this grip of steel about my heart and no breath—if you think it is easy, well, just try it.

“But for all the difficulties—or possibly because of all these difficulties—I like it. It is such a relief not to be the duffering heroine that I have been most of my stage life.”

Jackson [MS] Daily News 17 November 1906: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Those “duffering” heroines Miss Russell speaks of were sentimental stock roles of Sweet Young Things named variously Sylvia, Esmerelda, Elaine, Hazel, Ada, Maggie, Edith, Ruth, or Sue, of which she heartily tired during her years in the theatre. She was, one fears, typecast, hence her delight in the role of Puck. However, this critic was less complimentary about the Jackson production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” than the Daily News:  

The opening of the Astor Theatre, New York, September 21, 1906, was signalized by a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” made by the managers of that theatre, Messrs. Wagenhals & Kemper. Miss Annie Russell, an actress of English origin but exclusively American training, acted Puck, and was gay, agile, and frisky…. Puck, though a busy part, is subsidiary in the play, and, except that it provides opportunity for the manifestation of a sprightly, mischievous, frolicsome spirit, possesses no charm that should attract an actor of fine ability to undertake its representation. There is no obvious reason why a female should play it, and probably the only reason why a female ever elected, or was assigned, to play it is that Puck is most effective when assumed by a person whose figure is slight and handsome and whose temperament is volatile—as commonly happens with young women. The most that any player can accomplish with the part is an exhibition of physical agility and vital, elfish, exuberant delight in the mischievous activities of a droll deviltry. Miss Russell’s acting had usually manifested a sentimental temperament and a finical style, but as Puck she was moderately vivacious and pleasing.

Shakespeare on the Stage; Third Series, Volume 3, William Winter, 1916

An acrobatic flying corset used by the “Flying Dancer” Azella in 1865. Perhaps Miss Russell’s flying apparatus was similar. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-76193&start=10&rows=1

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.


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.


Unappreciated Shakespeare: 1875

Children Acting the Play Scene from Hamlet, Charles Hunt, 1863, Yale Center for British Art

Children Acting the Play Scene from Hamlet, Charles Hunt, 1863, Yale Center for British Art

Since this is the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s baptism, [The Bard’s exact birth date is unknown] let us have an encore of this story about a stage-struck youth who struggled to share Shakespeare’s genius with an unappreciative world.


A few days ago, young Gurley, whose father lives on Crogan street, organized a theatrical company, and purchased the dime novel play of ” Hamlet.” The company consisted of three boys and a hostler, and Mr. Gurley’s hired girl was to be the “Ghost” if the troupe could guarantee her fifty cents per night.

Young Gurley suddenly bloomed out as a Professional, and when his mother asked him to bring in some wood, he replied: “Though I am penniless thou canst not degrade me!”

“You trot out after that wood or I’ll have your father trounce you!” she exclaimed.

“The tyrant who lays his hand upon me shall die!” replied the boy, but he got the wood.

He was out on the step when a man came along and asked him where Lafayette street was.

“Doomed for a certain time to roam the earth!” replied Gurley, in a hoarse voice, and holding his right arm out straight.

“I say, you—where is Lafayette street?” called the man.

“Ah! could the dead but speak—ah!” continued the boy.

The man drove him into the house, and his mother sent him to the grocery after potatoes.

“I go, most noble Duchess,” he said, as he took up the basket; “but my good sword shall someday avenge these insults!”

He knew that the grocer favored theatricals, and when he got there, he said:

“Art thou provided with a store of that vegetable known as the ‘tater, most excellent Duke?”

“What in thunder do you want?” growled the grocer, as he cleaned the cheese knife on a piece of paper.

“The plebian mind is dull of comprehension!” answered Gurley.

“Don’t try to get off any of your nonsense on me, or I’ll crack your empty pate in a minute!” roared the grocer, and “Hamlet” had to come down off his high horse and ask for a peck of potatoes.

“What made you so long?” asked his mother, as he returned.

“Thy grave shall be dug in the cypress glade!” he haughtily answered.

When his father came home at noon Mrs. Gurley told him she believed the boy was going crazy, and related what had occurred.

“I see what ails him,” mused the father, “this explains why he hangs around Johnson’s barn so much.”

At the dinner table young Gurley spoke of his father as the “illustrious Count,” and when his mother asked him if he would have some butter gravy, he answered:

“The appetite of a warrior cannot be satisfied with such nonsense.”

When the meal was over the father went out to his favorite shade-tree, cut a sprout, and the boy was asked to step out into the woodshed and see if the pen stock was frozen up. He found the old man there, and he said:

“Why, most noble Lord. I had supposed thee far away.”

“I’m not so far away but what I’m going to make you skip!” growled the father. “I’ll teach you to fool around with ten-cent tragedies!  Come up here!”

For about five minutes the woodshed was full of dancing feet, flying arms and moving bodies, and then the old man took a rest and inquired:

“There, your Highness, dost thou want more?”

“Oh! no, dad—not a bit more!” wailed the young ” manager,” and while the father started for down town he went in and sorrowfully informed the hired girl that he must cancel her engagement till the fall season.—Detroit Free Press.  

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer’s Monthly Journal, Volumes 9-10, 1875

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.