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ClassicsOnline Home » Great Historical Shakespeare Recordings
Historical recordings of actors from the beginning of the recording era. CD 1: Historical Shakespeare performances by Ainley, John Barrymore, Bourchier, Casson, Forbes-Robertson, John Geilgud (1920s and 1940s). CD 2: A miscellany. Some startling historical performances in a wide range of works from Edith Evans, Charles Laughton, Noel Coward, Sarah Bernhardt, Fred Terry, Laurel and Hardy, Edwin Booth, Bransby Williams, Jean Cocteau, Feodor Chaliapin and others.
Great Historical Recordings
‘Life’s but a walking shadow
A poor player that struts and frets
His hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.’
Cassette 1 — Early Recordings of Actors in Shakespeare
With the development of Edison’s Phonograph in the 1880s,
the ephemeral art of the actor found a little more permanence. Never again
would a famous actor after his death be ‘heard no more’, and future generations
would be able to judge for themselves whether his reputation was justified.
Since the 17th century, a classical actor’s reputation has
stood or fallen by his interpretation of Shakespeare, so this first cassette
looks at the changing styles of Shakespearian acting from the beginning of
recorded sound in the 1880s, to the late 1940s.
If only we could have heard the voice of Richard Burbage,
the first great performer of Hamlet, or hear for ourselves whether Garrick
spoke Shakespeare with his native Lichfield accent. Fortunately recordings have
survived of the greatest actor of the Victorian age, Sir Henry Irving.
In 1888, the personal representative of Edison, Colonel
Gouraud, came to England with a prototype of the new Phonograph, and publicized
his employer’s new invention by recording some of the most eminent figures in
English society. After a dinner party at the Colonel’s, Irving was requested to
recite something, but he was nervous and, as his host said, ‘frightened out of
his voice’. Nevertheless he appeared to be intrigued by this ‘most
extraordinary instrument phenomenon.’ He wrote to Ellen Terry: ‘You speak into
it and everything is recorded, voice, tone, intonation, everything. You turn a
little wheel, and forth it comes, and can be repeated ten thousands of times.
Only fancy what this suggests’
Eventually, Irving mastered the new technique of directing
his voice down a ‘speaking-tube’, which caused a needle, attached to a
diaphragm, to vibrate and leave an impression of sound-waves on a wax cylinder.
The needle then retraced its journey through the grooves, playing back the
recording through a large conically shaped horn. The bigger the horn, the
louder the sound.
Sir Henry was not over impressed with the result: ‘Is that
my voice? My God!’
The phonograph was hardly more than a drawing-room
entertainment at this stage, and some years away from commercial development,
survival of the recordings of Irving included here is little
short of a miracle. These early cylinders are important historic documents,
which, due to the limitations of the technology give us just an impression of
Irving, Terry and American Edwin Booth — which is why they have been placed at
the end of the cassette.
The first is a speech from Richard III, which Irving first
played at the Lyceum in 1877. As one observer said: ‘he never lost nobility,
the nobility of Lucifer.’ Irving revived Richard III in 1896, which is probably
when this recording was made.
The second is a recording of Wolsey‘s speech in Henry VIII,
which Irving played in 1892. He seems more at his ease in this recording,
leading some scholars to doubt whether this is in fact Irving at all, or one of
his many imitators. For me, the inclusion of a line not written by Shakespeare
at the end of the speech makes it authentic. It is an extra line added by
Irving to cover the dying Cardinal’s well-documented exit across the Lyceum
stage: ‘Come Cromwell, let us go in. My spirit is broken, — Ah!’ He also adds a postscript, saying ‘I
consider that one of the finest tragedies in Shakespeare.’
Irving’s idiosyncratic pronunciation was much commented upon
by his contemporaries. He pronounced ‘dog’ as ‘dug’, and famously in The Bells,
said ‘Tack the rup from mey nek’ (‘Take the rope from my neck’). These
peculiarities are evident in these recordings. For instance, in Richard III he
says ‘Sun of Yark’, for ‘Sun of York.’
Irving was well aware of his deficiencies. He himself had corrected a
bad stammer he had had since a boy, and to make the most of his thin voice he
made use of nasal resonance. But it was not vocal power that made Irving a
great actor; it was his gift of being able to hold an audience by the force of
his magnetic personality. We can only catch a glimpse of his talent through
these rather primitive recordings.
In the United States, the great Shakespearian tragedian, and
Irving’s contemporary, was Edwin Booth (1833-93). He came from a theatrical
family that was blighted with real-life tragedy. His father, Junius Brutus
Booth, had suffered from bouts of insanity, and Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes
Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865. This event cast a shadow over the
rest of Edwin’s life and career. In 1882, Irving invited Booth to play Othello
in London, opposite his Iago. Booth’s Othello was described by his biographer
William Winter as ‘affluent with feeling, eloquent, picturesque, and admirable
for sustained power and symmetry.’ In 1890, Booth made a private recording of
Othello’s speech to the Senate for his wife, which is full of quiet dignity.
Does one detect in the restrained and almost naturalistic delivery the
beginnings of an understanding and sensitivity towards the new technology?
Irving’s stage partner at the Lyceum from 1878 to 1896 was
Ellen Terry (1847-1928), and no actress was more loved by her followers. She
was intensely feminine and the embodiment of Shakespeare’ heroines. As one
reviewer said, ‘it was as if she had met, and talked with, and lived with them
all.’ After leaving the stage, she toured extensively with her lecture-recital
on Shakespeare’s Heroines, and was persuaded, whilst in America in 1911, to
make the recordings included here. Astonishingly she was 63 at the time, but
her youthful energy, which she never seems to have lost, is still in evidence,
giving us a taste of those performances with Irving of more than 30 years
In preparing for her Ophelia, which she first played in
1878, she studied lunatics in an asylum: ‘I noticed a young girl gazing at the
wall. I went between her and the wall to see her face. It was quite vacant, but
the body expressed that she was waiting, waiting. Suddenly she threw up her
hands and sped across the room like a swallow. I never forgot it; the movement
was as poignant as it was beautiful.’ Ellen Terry did not think her Juliet,
which she first played in 1882, was a success, lacking, she said, ‘original
impulse.’ But Irving admired it and her recording of the Potion scene is
compelling. Her Portia, from The Merchant of Venice, which she had played as
early as 1875, was ‘a perfect woman, in all the attributes that fascinate’, yet
in the trial scene Ellen invested her ‘with that fine light of celestial anger
— that momentary thrill of moral austerity.’ (William Winter). Her last
performance with Irving in 1902, was in the role of Portia.
After the death of Irving in 1905, the mantle of
Shakespearian production fell to Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917). Between the
late 1890s and 1917 he mounted 16 lavish Shakespearian productions at his own
theater, Her Majesty’s. Tree was something of an idealist and a dreamer, and
was lacking in self-discipline as an actor. This did not make him really
suitable for playing Shakespeare, particularly passionate or heroic parts. His
talent was as a character actor, and using his considerable skills of make-up,
he was able to create bizarre and eccentric characters, which were his greatest
successes. (As an example, hear his Svengali on cassette 2).
In 1898, he mounted an epic production of Julius Caesar,
with sets by Alma Tadema, and large, carefully choreographed, crowd scenes. In
choosing which part to play he wrote: ‘For the scholar, Brutus, for the actor,
Cassius, for the public Antony.’
He chose the public. Not having had any vocal training, Tree found
difficulty in sustaining the verse and reaching a rhetorical climax. Perhaps
this is why his recording of Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body, made in 1906,
feels as if it’s on the edge of being sung. It is constructed like an aria,
each line moving up a semitone until the climax is reached. It sounds odd to
our ears, and a far cry from modern Shakespearian performing styles, yet, given
the size of the theater he had to fill, this grandiose, unnaturalistic style
would have been very thrilling.
In the second recording, Tree is much more at home with his
broad and rich characterization of Falstaff.
The disciples of Irving and Tree who made early recordings
included Arthur Bourchier, Lewis Waller, Frank Benson, and Johnston
Arthur Bourchier (1863-1927) was an enthusiast for
Shakespeare. His acting is full of ardor and energy, broad brushstrokes, with
little space for
subtlety and delicacy. He was an aggressive actor-manager,
who championed contemporary playwrights like Pinero and Jones. One reviewer as
‘merely a bluff and rugged warrior’ described his performance as Macbeth, here
recorded in 1909. Nevertheless, I think he probably represents the most usual
style of playing Shakespeare at the turn of the century.
The good looks of Lewis Waller (1860-1915), soon established
him as a matinee idol, and he was renowned for playing romantic parts.
Thousands of postcards were published for his adoring female fans, which banded
themselves together into a society called ‘Keen On Waller.’ They wore
buttonhole badges displaying they were ‘K.O.W.s’ — which caused much mirthful
comment in the popular press of the day!
Waller starred as Henry V in 1901, when his ‘ringing voice
and striking presence’ made it a popular success. J.T. Grein wrote of his performance:
‘He quivers with passion, with excitement, with righteous ardor that we in our
seats begin to feel the effect.’ A century later we can still share in that
Sir Frank Benson (1858-1939) an Oxford graduate and
Shakespeare scholar was also a keen sportsman, and his approach to Shakespeare
is redolent of the playing field. Max Beerbohm wickedly reviewed his production
of Henry V in 1900 in this vein: ‘The fielding was excellent, and so was the
batting. Speech after speech was sent spinning across the boundary.’
Nevertheless, Benson and his ‘team’ toured Shakespeare
unceasingly throughout Britain and its Empire from the 1890s through to the
1930s, giving generations their first experience of the plays.
Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937) possessed great
physical beauty, a scholarly mind and in his heyday a voice ‘of gold and silver
tones’. Fine attributes for an actor, but Forbes-Robertson, despite his success
never really cared for acting. In 1913, he was a popular Hamlet, described by
one reviewer as being ‘patient and careful, the temperament of an English
gentleman’, and George Bernard Shaw said his performance showed ‘a genuine
delight in Shakespeare’s art and a natural familiarity with the plane of his
imagination.’ It is this delight and familiarity that comes across in his
recorded lecture on Hamlet made in 1928. His delivery is more in keeping with
modern approaches to Shakespearian acting, relaxed and naturalistic, less
His approach sounds distinctly more modern than the early
recording of Hamlet by John Gielgud (1904-2000), which seems to be overshadowed
by the 19th century acting tradition, which was his background; Ellen Terry was
his great aunt. Similarly, his sense of rhetoric and poetry dominates his performance
of Richard II, sometimes at the expense of naturalism.
To be fair, Gielgud of course spanned the 20th century, and
these are early attempts at roles he was to make his own. He was only 23 when
he made the Richard II recording in 1927. A later recording made in the 1950s
is exemplary. The comparison between Forbes-Robertson and Gielgud shows that a
particular acting style does not necessarily belong to one generation.
Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976), and her husband Lewis Casson
(1875-1969) were stalwarts of the Old Vic in the early years of the 20th
century, then under the management of the eccentric Lilian Baylis. Her aim was
to make Shakespeare popular for ordinary working people. She greatly encouraged
a new generation of actors to join her company. Her recruits, John Gielgud,
Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson were of the new school of
Shakespearian acting promoted by William Poel and taught by Ben Greet. Poel
desired to sweep away all the accretions of the 19th century and get back to a
faster, more immediate style of verse speaking. This recording from 1930, of
Thorndike and Casson in Macbeth, well illustrates the changing tempo of
With the advent of electrical recording in the 1920s, where
a microphone was first used and the volume could be controlled by an amplifier,
the quality of reproduction significantly improves, and the style of acting
begins to adapt to this more sophisticated advance. Hitherto, the actors had
made little concession to the recording process. The breadth and size of their
performances did not change significantly from the theater to the studio.
An actor perfectly at ease with the medium and using it to
enhance and increase the effectiveness of his performance is John Barrymore
(1882-1942). Like Edwin Booth, he belonged to a theatrical dynasty, and some
critics think he could have been as great a Shakespearian actor as Booth. He
was a sensational Hamlet in 1922 on both sides of the Atlantic, but turned
instead to Hollywood becoming a matinee idol. The ease and
confidentiality of his delivery in the speech from Henry VI
show his experience in the subtle world of the film. The speech from Hamlet,
made as a ‘promotion’ towards the end of his life may show some vocal signs of
his fast life style, but his natural and intelligent delivery also makes us
think of the fascinating Shakespearian actor he might have been.
An actor who was both a film and a Shakespearian actor, and
occasionally managed to combine both, was Laurence Olivier (1907-1989). The
excerpt here from the film soundtrack of Hamlet (1948) shows how far sound
recording had progressed in 60 years. The high quality of the sound recording
allows Olivier to take us right into the mind of Hamlet; he seems to be just
thinking rather than speaking the lines.
By contrast, the Harfleur speech from his film of Henry V
(1944) is boldly theatrical. It is
a trumpet call to arms at a time of national conflict, and in its style
unashamedly takes us back to the ‘ringing voice’ of Lewis Waller.
These early recordings show us how the art of acting
Shakespeare, which had been handed on from generation to generation, was
changed and refined by the invention of recorded sound. As the 20th century
progressed, the larger style gave way to a more subtle and
internalized style, matching the techniques required for those two other
technological revolutions of the last century, film and television. These
changes have ensured that Shakespeare has not remained solely the prerogative
of the theater, but has reached an ever-increasing audience in the electronic
Cassette 2 — Early Recordings: A Miscellany
Our second cassette shows how the rapidly developing medium
of recorded sound caught the popular imagination in the early years of the 20th
century. Jazz bands, brass bands, music-hall artists, politicians all rushed to
get themselves on record, and actors were not far behind. Noel Coward
(1899-1973) was always a successful self-publicist and soon realized that
recorded excerpts from his plays would considerably help the box-office. The
excerpts here, from Private Lives recorded in 1930 with the Master and the
sparkling Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), capture forever the spirit and style
of the theater in the 1920s.
An earlier popular theatrical duo were Fred Terry
(1863-1933) and his wife Julia Neilson (1868-1957) who recorded their ‘hit’ The
Scarlet Pimpernel in 1906. As A.E. Wilson said, ‘A handsomer pair of lovers
never trod the boards or raised rubbish to the plane of pure delight.’ Rubbish
or not, it was successfully revived throughout their long careers.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917), as we have already seen,
had a huge success mounting epic productions of Shakespeare, but his greatest
triumph came with the adaptation of Du Maurier’s novel Trilby, which he first
produced in 1895.
A character actor of considerable scope, with the aid of his
artistry in greasepaint, he brilliantly personified the evil Svengali. He
brought Du Maurier’s drawings to life. A.E. Wilson describes his performance as
having ‘the air of romantic shabbiness and picturesque grime with guttural
alien accent — the very tones of which struck a chill.’ He recorded this excerpt in 1906.
There was a growing public for the theater in the early
1900s. It was the heyday of the picture postcard and fans competed to collect
whole sets of their favorites. The recording companies too saw the potential in
persuading the stars to record their party pieces. One of the most beautiful
and adored actors of his generation was Henry Ainley (1879-1945) who also had a
musical voice ranging ‘from fluty sweetness to deep organ tone.’ Here he reads
Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Giving ‘impressions’ of famous people is nothing new, and
Bransby Williams (1870-1961) had a long and successful career as a ‘mimic’ (his
term) in the music hall — over 60 years in fact. The arrival of recorded sound
was a boon to the impersonator and Williams’ celebrated imitation of Irving in
The Bells has led some to question the authenticity of the Irving recordings
(see cassette 1). He captures Irving’s vocal mannerisms to perfection, and it
is not perhaps surprising to learn that Irving was ‘sensitive’ about his
impersonators, of whom there were many. On one occasion, he called down the
power of the Lord Chamberlain to threaten the withdrawal of the offending
theater’s license. Bransby Williams, seems to have escaped unscathed, and
recorded the extract included here around 1914. He was still performing it in
his eightieth year, 1950, on another piece of new technology — the television.
Edith Evans (1888-1976), will always be associated with The
Importance of Being Earnest in which she gave the definitive performance of
Lady Bracknell. The ‘handbag’ line must be the most imitated piece of theater
in the western world! But the performance she gave in John Gielgud’s 1939
production was one of subtlety and detail: ‘I know those sort of women,’ she
said, ‘they ring the bell and tell you to put a lump of coal on the fire; they
spoke meticulously, they were all very good-looking and didn’t have any
nerves.’ Here she recreates her performance with her director John Gielgud,
himself the very incarnation of John Worthing.
Charles Laughton (1899-1962) was one of scores of British
actors who made his name in Hollywood. Like Stan Laurel, he came to prefer the
American way of life, and scored a popular hit in the film Ruggles of Red Gap
(1935), where he plays an English butler incongruously working in the Wild
West. During the course of the action, Ruggles, the butler recites Abraham
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to great effect. It is a fine speech and this
recording, made in 1937, shows Laughton at his best. Towards the end of his
life, he made more use of his rhetorical skills and turned increasingly to the
recital platform with readings from The Bible and Dickens.
Recording companies were always looking for novelties, and
music-hall artists performing sketches and monologues were very popular in the
first half of the 20th century. Many comic moments from the films of Laurel and
Hardy for instance were transcribed to disc. The recording included here,
though, was made to promote one of their far too infrequent visits to Britain.
It is a curious paradox to think that these two stars, which made their name in
films without sound, could be so successful in sound without vision. It is a
fine example of two geniuses adapting their skills to the now well-established
medium of sound recording.
We end the English section with another ‘novelty act’ by
Bransby Williams. Throughout his long career, The Stage Doorkeeper was one of
his most popular ‘turns’. In it, he mimicked the most successful performers of
the day, continually changing them to remain topical.
Here, frozen in time are the ‘voices’ of the performers of
the moment in 1914, the year of the recording. George Alexander, the
actor-manager, Forbes Robertson as Hamlet, and the music-hall artists Chirgwin,
White-Eyed Kaffir’; G.P. Huntley the silly fool type; R.G.
Knowles, the eccentric comedian; Fred Emney and George Formby (senior) with his
characteristic cough. Many of these names, now long forgotten by the public,
were never recorded themselves, and it is poignant to hear them one step
removed as it were. It makes one grateful that so many early recordings have
survived of the great artists of yesterday, and I hope this compilation will
help to bring those ‘poor players’ out of the ‘shadows’ and once more, into the
Recording companies on the continent were also eager to
preserve for posterity the leading actors of their day. Most famous and most
notorious was the great Sarah Bernhardt (1845-1923). Ellen Terry said of her: ‘She
was as transparent as an azalea — like a cloud, only not so thick. Smoke from a
burning paper describes her more nearly!
She was hollow-eyed, thin, almost consumptive-looking. Her body was not
the prison of her soul, but its shadow — she always seemed to me more a symbol,
an ideal, an epitome than a woman — which makes her so easy in such lofty parts
as Phèdre.’ Her voice was variously described as a ‘golden bell’, or the
‘silver sound of running water’. Its sustained power in this extract from Racine’s
Phèdre recorded in 1903 is thrilling.
Two of her leading men are also featured here. Jean
Mounet-Sully (1841-1916) was a major tragic actor of the 19th century whose
passion, conviction and sheer dramatic power overwhelmed his audiences. He
played opposite Bernhardt in Hernani by Victor Hugo, but he was a renowned
Oedipus, recorded here in 1912.
Constant Coquelin (1841-1909) was essentially a comic actor
making his debut at the Comédie-Française. He joined Sarah Bernhardt’s company
in 1892, but his strong personality clashed with hers and their association was
short-lived. He will always be known as the originator of Rostand’s Cyrano de
Bergerac, which he played over 400 times.
The Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) was a
formidable talent. He was a great singer and also a great actor. On stage he
blended the two arts. His voice ‘rolled out like melodious thunder’ and could
be at once ‘powerful and caressing.’ He left the Soviet Union in 1921, and
became an international artist. In 1922, Nadson recorded him performing
Alexander Moissi (1880-1935), although of Italian/Albanian
parentage, became a leading German actor from 1905, working with the innovative
Max Reinhardt in Berlin. He was a notable proponent of the title role of
Goethe’s Faust, recorded here in 1927, and in 1930 came to London with his
version of Hamlet. Schubert famously set Goethe’s Erlkoenig. Both recordings
show us his rich and musical speaking voice.
Notes by David Timson
In addition to creating Great Historical Shakespeare
Recordings for Naxos AudioBooks, David Timson is the author of the highly
acclaimed, The History of Theater. A familiar and versatile audio and radio
voice, Timson has also performed in modern and classic plays across Great
Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of
Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen on television in Nelson’s Column and
Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House.
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