Hamlet on the (very) small stage

Did you pick up a souvenir X-wing figurine for the opening of Rogue One last night? Maybe you’re getting a tie-in edition of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for Christmas this year, or a poster from the Ghostbusters remake. In 1948, you might have eagerly awaited this book of characters and scenery reproduced from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet to stage the film at home. 

Hamlet theater cover

This item was acquired by the Folger in 2006, and featured at our annual Acquisitions Night the following year. It presents a condensed summary of the play, intermingled with impressionistic images of the scene settings used in the film. The center spread features images of the characters from the film in various poses.

Hamlet cut-out figures center spread

The owner of the book could cut out the characters, and pose them against the scene settings to re-enact Hamlet in a toy theater. (For the spendthrift and/or craftily-inclined, the booklet also provides instructions for creating your own model theater out of wood or a used cereal box.)

Scene 1 in Hamlet: The Battlements

Toy theaters first became popular in the 19th century. Enthusiastic theater-goers could purchase a toy theater, and sets of scenery and characters, to re-enact their favorite plays long after the curtain closed. One of the major producers was Benjamin Pollock, who produced toy theaters in different styles (i.e. “Regency” style, etc.) and accessories until his death in 1937. Though his business had dwindled, it was re-started as Benjamin Pollock Limited by antiquarian book dealer Alan Keen and toy theater performer George Speaight in 1946. The Hamlet set was one of the first that the re-formed company produced, allowing children of the 1940s to re-enact films in the same way their counterparts of the 19th century re-enacted plays.

Even if you didn’t have own a toy theater or couldn’t make one, you could still stage a few scenes. And you could go off script whenever you wanted to! Here’s what it might look like in action:

Assembled scene from Hamlet

Don’t worry, we didn’t destroy a collection item just for a photoshoot! We actually own two copies of this book: one intact, and another with the scenes and figures cut out by a previous owner.

Hamlet cut-out figures

We also own a toy theater of the same model – the “Regency” style produced by Benjamin Pollock Limited – pictured on the front cover of the book. Unfortunately, it’s a little too fragile to set up with the scenery for Hamlet, so you’ll have to use your imagination. In its day, though, it had several slots for different scenery sheets, and even included electrical lights for the stage (sold separately as a kit – you can see some of the wiring to the side of the photo).

Pollock's toy theater