Folger Finds delivers delightful and insightful moments with the Folger collection. Sarah Hovde, a cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library, shares the story behind a 1910 Esperanto edition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Heard any Esperanto lately? Designed by Polish linguist and physician L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 as a universal language, this artificial tongue gained enough momentum by 1905 to hold its first World Congress. And the gatherings are still going: the 100th World Congress of Esperanto was held this summer in Lille, France.
This 1910 Esperanto edition of As You Like It was translated by Ivy Kellerman Reed, a noted Esperanto advocate and part of the Esperanto Association of North America.
The Folger has almost 30 editions of Shakespeare plays in Esperanto. What makes this one especially interesting are its connections to our hometown: this translation was produced for La Sesa Internacia Kongreso de Esperanto, or the 6th World Congress of Esperanto, held in Washington D.C. from August 14-20, 1910. As You Like It was chosen as “unu plej popularan el la verkajoj de tiu universale konata verkisto” (one of the most popular works of this universally known writer).
The 6th Congress invited 2,000 delegates from around the world to consider global matters: “Though the delegates are coming here from the fartherest points of the world yet there will be no confusion of mother tongues but a free conversation in a common language,” as one writer in the East Oregonian put it.
Delegates were also treated to a baseball game called entirely in Esperanto, a visit to Great Falls (a dramatic whitewater section of the upper Potomac), and the performance of As You Like It, all in addition to their main program of meetings.
The play took place on the grounds of the Bristol School, a prep school for girls near DC’s present-day Adams Morgan neighborhood that specialized in French, music, and outdoor activities. For the open-air performance (luckily, the weather cooperated), the local woods presented “a real Forest of Arden” for the scenery, according to The Washington Herald newspaper. Local residents as well as Esperantists could buy tickets ranging from 50 cents to a dollar.
The play was a great success: Only a single performance was planned, but public interest led to a three-day run. The surprise hit was a production of the Hickman Players, a local theater troupe under the direction of Robert Hickman. In the photographs that illustrate this edition, the Hickman Players can be seen in their costumes, as can the “Forest of Arden.”
While this wasn’t the troupe’s first performance of As You Like It, it was their first performance in Esperanto—in fact, as The Evening Star pointed out, “None of the Hickman players could speak a word of Esperanto up to two months ago.”
Their performances signified several other firsts as well: it was the first Esperanto play performed in the United States (although previous International Congresses in other countries had featured plays), and it was also the first translation of As You Like It into Esperanto.
The play owed some of its success, according to the press, to the players’ “smooth and easy performance.” As the Evening Star commented, “That Esperanto lends itself to the poetic form and may be made to flow trippingly from the tongue when blank verse written in it is properly spoken was demonstrated last night on the grounds of the Bristol School.”
Though we have this edition to remember the performance by, there is no record that the Hickman Players ever performed any play in Esperanto again.