A Singular "Hamlet"
by Edgar Wilson Nye
The closing debut of that great Shakespearian humorist and emotional
ass, Mr. James Owen O'Connor, at the Star Theater, will never be
forgotten. During his extraordinary histrionic career he gave his
individual and amazing renditions of Hamlet, Phidias, Shylock, Othello,
and Richelieu. I think I liked his Hamlet best, and yet it was a
pleasure to see him in anything wherein he killed himself.
Encouraged by the success of beautiful but self-made actresses, and
hoping to win a place for himself and his portrait in the great soap and
cigarette galaxy, Mr. O'Connor placed himself in the hands of some
misguided elocutionist, and then sought to educate the people of New
York and elocute them out of their thralldom up into the glorious light
of the O'Connor school of acting.
The first week he was in the hands of the critics, and they spoke quite
serenely of his methods. Later, it was deemed best to place his merits
in the hands of a man who would be on an equal footing with him. What
O'Connor wanted was one of his peers, who would therefore judge him
fairly. I was selected because I know nothing whatever about acting and
would thus be on an equality with Mr. O'Connor.
After seeing his Hamlet I was of the opinion that he did wisely in
choosing New York for debutting purposes, for had he chosen Denver,
Colorado, at the end of the third act kind hands would have removed him
from the stage by means of benzine and a rag.
I understand that Mr. O'Connor charged Messrs. Henry E. Abbey and Henry
Irving with using their influence among the masses in order to prejudice
said masses against Mr. O'Connor, thus making it unpleasant for him to
act, and inciting in the audience a feeling of gentle but evident
hostility, which Mr. O'Connor deprecated very much whenever he could
get a chance to do so. I looked into this matter a little and I do not
think it was true. Until almost the end of Mr. O'Connor's career,
Messrs. Abbey and Irving were not aware of his great metropolitan
success, and it is generally believed among the friends of the two
former gentlemen that they did not feel it so keenly as Mr. O'Connor was
led to suppose.
But James Owen O'Connor did one thing which I take the liberty of
publicly alluding to. He took that saddest and most melancholy bit of
bloody history, trimmed with assassinations down the back and looped up
with remorse, insanity, duplicity and unrequited love, and he filled it
with silvery laughter and cauliflower and mirth, and various other
groceries which the audience throw in from time to time, thus making it
more of a spectacular piece than under the conservative management of
such old-school men as Booth, who seem to think that Hamlet should be
soaked full of sadness.
I went to see Hamlet, thinking that I would be welcome, for my
sympathies were with James when I heard that Mr. Irving was picking on
him and seeking to injure him. I went to the box office and explained
who I was, and stated that I had been detailed to come and see Mr.
O'Connor act; also that in what I might say afterwards my instructions
were to give it to Abbey and Irving if I found that they had tampered
with the audience in any way.
The man in the box office did not recognize me, but said that Mr. Fox
would extend to me the usual courtesies. I asked where Mr. Fox could be
found, and he said inside. I then started to go inside, but ran against
a total stranger, who was "on the door," as we say. He was feeding red
and yellow tickets into a large tin oven, and looking far, far away. I
conversed with him in low, passionate tones, and asked him where Mr. Fox
could be found. He did not know, but thought he was still in Europe. I
went back and told the box office that Mr. Fox was in Europe. He said
No, I would find him inside. "Well, but how shall I get inside?" I asked
eagerly, for I could already, I fancied, hear the orchestra beginning
to twang its lyre.
"Walk in," said he, taking in $2 and giving back 50 cents in change to a
man with a dead cat in his overcoat pocket.
I went back, and springing lightly over the iron railing while the
gatekeeper was thinking over his glorious past, I went all around over
the theater looking for Mr. Fox. I found him haggling over the price of
some vegetables which he was selling at the stage door and which had
been contributed by admirers and old subscribers to Mr. O'Connor at a
When Mr. Fox got through with that I presented to him my card, which is
as good a piece of job work in colors as was ever done west of the
Missouri river, and to which I frequently point with pride.
Mr. Fox said he was sorry, but that Mr. O'Connor had instructed him to
extend no courtesies whatever to the press. The press, he claimed, had
said something derogatory to Mr. O'Connor as a tragedian, and while he
personally would be tickled to death to give me two divans and a
folding-bed near the large fiddle, he must do as Mr. O'Connor had
bid—or bade him, I forget which; and so, restraining his tears with
great difficulty, he sent me back to the entrance and although I was
already admitted in a general way, I went to the box office and
purchased a seat. I believe now that Mr. Fox thought he had virtually
excluded me from the house when he told me I should have to pay in order
to get in.
I bought a seat in the parquet and went in. The audience was not large
and there were not more than a dozen ladies present.
Pretty soon the orchestra began to ooze in through a little opening
under the stage. Then the overture was given. It was called "Egmont."
The curtain now arose on a scene in Denmark. I had asked an usher to
take a note to Mr. O'Connor requesting an audience, but the boy had
returned with the statement that Mr. O'Connor was busy rehearsing his
soliloquy and removing a shirred egg from his outer clothing.
He also said he could not promise an audience to any one. It was all he
could do to get one for himself.
So the play went on. Elsinore, where the first act takes place, is in
front of a large stone water tank, where two gentlemen armed with
long-handled hay knives are on guard.
All at once a ghost who walks with an overstrung Chickering action and
stiff, jerky, Waterbury movement, comes in, wearing a dark mosquito net
over his head—so that harsh critics can not truly say there are any
flies on him, I presume. When the ghost enters most every one enjoys it.
Nobody seems to be frightened at all. I knew it was not a ghost as quick
as I looked at it. One man in the gallery hit the ghost on the head with
a soda cracker, which made him jump and feel of his ear; so I knew then
that it was only a man made up to look like a presence.
One of the guards, whose name, I think, was Smith, had a droop to his
legs and an instability about the knees which were highly enjoyable. He
walked like a frozen-toed hen, and stood first on one foot and then on
the other, with almost human intelligence. His support was about as
poor as O'Connor's.
After awhile the ghost vanished with what is called a stately tread, but
I would regard it more as a territorial tread. Horatio did quite well,
and the audience frequently listened to him. Still, he was about the
only one who did not receive crackers or cheese as a slight testimonial
of regard from admirers in the audience.
Finally, Mr. James Owen O'Connor entered. It was fully five minutes
before he could be heard, and even then he could not. His mouth moved
now and then, and a gesture would suddenly burst forth, but I did not
hear what he said. At least I could not hear distinctly what he said.
After awhile, as people got tired and went away, I could hear better.
Mr. O'Connor introduced into his Hamlet a set of gestures evidently
intended for another play. People who are going to act out on the stage
can not be too careful in getting a good assortment of gestures that
will fit the play itself. James had provided himself with a set of
gestures which might do for Little Eva, or "Ten Nights in a Bar-room,"
but they did not fit Hamlet. There is where he makes a mistake. Hamlet
is a man whose victuals don't agree with him. He feels depressed and
talks about sticking a bodkin into himself, but Mr. O'Connor gives him a
light, elastic step, and an air of persiflage, bonhomie, and frisk,
which do not match the character.
Mr. O'Connor sought in his conception and interpretation of Hamlet to
give it a free and jaunty Kokomo flavor—a nameless twang of tansy and
dried apples, which Shakespeare himself failed to sock into his great
James did this, and more. He took the wild-eyed and morbid Blackwell's
Island Hamlet, and made him a $2 parlor humorist who could be the life
of the party, or give lessons in elocution, and take applause or
crackers and cheese in return for the same.
There is really a good lesson to be learned from the pitiful and
pathetic tale of James Owen O'Connor. Injudicious friends, doubtless,
overestimated his value, and unduly praised his Smart Aleckutionary
powers. Loving himself unwisely but too extensively, he was led away
into the great, untried purgatory of public scrutiny, and the general
The truth stands out brighter and stronger than ever that there is no
cut across lots to fame or success. He who seeks to jump from mediocrity
to a glittering triumph over the heads of the patient student, and the
earnest, industrious candidate who is willing to bide his time, gets
what James Owen O'Connor received—the just condemnation of those who
are abundantly able to judge.
In seeking to combine the melancholy beauty of Hamlet's deep and earnest
pathos with the gentle humor of "A Hole in the Ground," Mr. O'Connor
evidently corked himself, as we say at the Browning Club, and it was but
justice after all. Before we curse the condemnation of the people and
the press, let us carefully and prayerfully look ourselves over, and see
if we have not overestimated ourselves.
There are many men alive to-day who do not dare say anything without
first thinking how it will read in their memoirs—men whom we can not,
therefore, thoroughly enjoy until they are dead, and yet whose graves
will be kept green only so long as the appropriation lasts.