Was it the first Shakespeare film? The silent King John

Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John, 1899 (screenshot from YouTube)
Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John, 1899 (screenshot from YouTube)

With King John on stage at the Folger, our attention turns to a surprising fact about the play’s history. According to many observers, the very first Shakespeare film ever produced was not Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, or any of the other more familiar Shakespeare plays. Instead, it may have been the brief 1899 silent film King John, created before the start of the 20th century. But what is the story behind this extremely short and very early work?

Although King John, featuring actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, is often called the first Shakespeare film, that claim makes it sound perhaps grander than it is. Originally some four minutes in length, only slightly over one minute of the film (below) has been preserved—a single shot of the poisoned king’s dying throes. In its original form, King John had included three, or perhaps four, separate scenes, photographed for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company at an open-air studio on London’s Thames Embankment. The film was screened, along with several other short films, at the Palace Theatre on September 20, 1899, the same night that Tree’s stage production began its run at Her Majesty’s Theatre, a 10-minute walk away.

 

Tree’s film King John could hardly be considered an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play in any meaningful sense. At best, the filmmakers produced little more than brief, animated illustrations of several key events in the drama. As with other films of the time, the camera would not have moved and each scene, like the still existing one, would have consisted of a single, unedited shot. The filmmaker, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, who had worked in the United States for Thomas Edison, employed 68mm film, a high-quality negative size that could be projected on an extra-large screen without any loss of image resolution. When we consider how young the art of motion pictures was at the turn of the 20th century, it is remarkable that such a film would have been made at all. We are, after all, only four years from “Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory,” “Baby’s First Breakfast,” and a handful of other brief films—each less than a minute in length—screened in Paris to a paying audience on December 28, 1895, an event usually considered to be (ignoring Thomas Edison’s peep shows and other pioneer attempts) the birth of the movies. From those humble beginnings to Shakespeare seems quite a leap.

The inevitable question one might want to ask here—actually, two questions—is “why would anyone want to make a four-minute silent film from a Shakespeare play” and “why, of all plays, King John,” one of Shakespeare’s least familiar works. King John was the earliest, but not the only, silent film related to Shakespeare’s plays. Why make any silent film from a Shakespeare play at all? One, perhaps too glib, answer is that Shakespeare was a writer to whom it was unnecessary to pay royalties. A better explanation is that Shakespeare’s name was a guarantee of high-class entertainment for a medium that from the beginning was considered low brow and even morally questionable. The “why King John?” question, on the other hand, is easier to answer if we think of the film not as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play as such, but rather as a documentary record of a significant cultural event taking place in London, an advertisement, even, for the theatrical production of the play.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John in King John by William Shakespeare. Oil on canvas. Charles Buchel, 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John in King John by William Shakespeare. Oil on canvas. Charles Buchel, 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Produced by and starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree at his own theater, the stage production of King John was designed to be spectacular, realistic, and historically accurate, the culmination of what has been called the “archaeological style” of Shakespearean stage practice that reaches its apogee with Tree’s elaborate stagings of—in addition to King John—Hamlet, Henry VIII, and The Merchant of Venice, among others. King John was typical of these productions. It was spectacular, in the sense of furnishing the stage with elaborate sets and costumes; realistic, in the sense that the stage ostensibly represented actual places and included actual things, rendered in careful detail; and historically accurate, in the sense that the period reproduced on stage was, or at least was supposed to be, that of King John’s own time, early 13th-century England. Elaborate tableaux, featuring numerous extras and even a few horses, illustrated key moments—including the signing of the Magna Carta, an event not in the play. In spite, or perhaps because, of these seemingly un-Shakespearean excesses, Tree’s King John stage production was extremely popular, playing for over 100 performances and seen by some 170,000 people.

Battle of Angiers tableau, Beerbohm-Tree stage production of King John. (c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
Battle of Angiers tableau, Beerbohm-Tree stage production of King John. (c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Internet Shakespeare.
Magna Carta tableau, Beerbohm-Tree stage production of King John. (c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
Magna Carta tableau, Beerbohm-Tree stage production of King John. (c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Internet Shakespeare.

In contrast, the King John film, even by 1899 standards, appears rather primitive.  The set consists of a painted backdrop, what may be a stand-alone tree, and a throne. If we look to developments in France at around the same time, we find that Georges Méliès was already using detailed three-dimensional sets and staging the action with a bit more verve and dynamism than what we see in this surviving scene from Biograph’s film. To be fair, a look at frame enlargements made from the missing shots of King John suggests that the king’s death scene was the least elaborate in terms of staging and action, perhaps to keep the viewer focused on Tree himself.

Missing scenes from King John. The Sketch, September 27, 1899, p. 413.

Tree’s approach to presenting Shakespeare on stage, in any case, was already starting to be challenged by stripped-down approaches closer to the simpler stagecraft of Shakespeare’s own time.  Although elaborate mountings of Shakespeare’s plays would never entirely disappear from the stage, in the future it would be the movies that would attempt to duplicate, and ultimately improve upon, the spectacular mode of late Victorian theatrical practice. In authorizing a film of his King John, Tree was unwittingly collaborating with a medium that would soon make his innovations in the staging of Shakespeare seem relics of a bygone age.

Join us for King John at the Folger in a rare production of this powerful play. And to learn more about its fascinating, and often forgotten, history, join Michael Anderegg on November 30 for a pre-performance talk on King John on Stage and Screen.

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