“Jumping o’er times:” Visiting great Shakespeare performances past

Flames and smoke consuming the Globe Theatre
Cyril Walter Hodges. The fire at the Globe, 1613 (illustration for: Shakespeare’s Theatre, 1964). Folger Shakespeare Library.

While William Shakespeare never wrote what we might think of as a science-fiction play, he knew intuitively that the theatre — more than Doc Brown’s DeLorean, Bill & Ted’s phone booth, H.G. Wells’ 19th-century steampunk device, or the Doctor’s blue police box — is the greatest time machine there is.

(Name another contraption that can transport hundreds of people into other worlds and other historical periods; I’ll wait. I got time.)

In Henry V’s famous prologue, Shakespeare speaks of theater’s innate power to conflate both time and space, when he tells the audience, “For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, / Turning th’ accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass.” Through the combined imaginations of audience and actor and the power of theatrical storytelling, the stage — the “unworthy scaffold…within [the] wooden O” of the Globe itself — is large enough to hold “the vasty fields of France,” “the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt,” “the perilous narrow ocean,” and “horses…Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth.” As Doctor Who’s companions observe, eyes wide with wonder, upon entering the TARDIS, theater too is also “bigger on the inside.”

But since theaters are closed for much of 2020, our chances to see live Shakespeare are nonexistent. As this summer is the 30th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future, Part III — and because I just binged the entire trilogy after it appeared on Netflix last month — thoughts of Shakespeare and time-travel have me pondering: If I could hop into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and attend the greatest Shakespeare performances in history, which ones would I choose?

Here are my top five choices. What are yours?

  1. RICHARD BURBAGE AS… ANYTHING, REALLY

He was the original Romeo, the first Lear, and the premiere interpreter of all of Shakespeare’s greatest leading characters in between. As I’ve written before, Shakespeare couldn’t have created such great characters without great actors to give them life, and I’d love to see the exact performance where Richard Burbage first stepped onstage in his “inky cloak” to play Hamlet. Burbage was the most famous actor of his day: What extra-textual associations did he carry with him onstage? What frisson of anticipation rolled through the audience when he first appeared? Would I see Shakespeare in the wings, watching his great character come to life for the very first time, in the figure of the man for whom it was written? It might take several exploratory trips to arrive on the right day because we don’t know the precise date Hamlet premiered, but maybe I could also catch a performance featuring Shakespeare’s equally famous clown Will Kempe. I’d love to stand amidst the groundlings and ask everyone around me, “No, seriously — Why are you laughing?”

Theatre Royal Covent Garden playbill with pictures of Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge’s first appearance as Othello at Covent Garden in London. Folger Shakespeare Library.
  1. IRA ALDRIDGE AS OTHELLO

Then I might jump forward 220 years or so to the early 19th century. American Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) was the first known black actor to play Shakespeare’s tragic Moor in Britain, making his London debut as a 17-year-old. His most high-profile performance as Othello came in 1833 at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, when he stepped in as a replacement for the well-established star Edmund Kean, who had died in the middle of the run.

What a privilege it would be to see, in the words of one French critic, “an artist so completely identify himself with the person he represents,” and to witness first-hand, as Sir Stanley Wells deems him in his book Great Shakespeare Actors, the very first great American Shakespeare actor.

  1. THE MACBETH RIOTS OF 1849

On May 10, 1849, the Astor Place Riot began when supporters of American actor Edwin Forrest clashed with fans of English actor William Charles Macready inside and outside New York’s Astor Place Opera House, and the subsequent brawling and destruction of property resulted in more than two dozen deaths and over a hundred injured. Ostensibly about the relative merits of “two Shakespearean actors” (the title of Richard Nelson’s play about the event) and their performances of Macbeth, the violence had seeds in nativist pride, anti-immigrant anger, and clashes between so-called elites and the working class. I’d have to get there a few days, maybe a week, early to determine the exact causes, and I’d have to stay very safe, but I’d be curious to visit a world in which theater is so important people riot over it.

Astor Place Riot
Riot at the Astor-Place Opera-House, New York. Wood engraving, 1849. Folger Shakespeare Library.
  1. MAGGIE SMITH AS BEATRICE

This might be cheating because I was alive when it happened but A) I was only five and 2) it’s my list. Maggie Smith, probably best known to the current generation of viewers from her roles in Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter movies, played Beatrice in the 1965 National Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing, opposite her future husband Robert Stephens as Benedick and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The production included a murderers’ row of talent (Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, Frank Finlay, and Albert Finney) and the young-yet-future-Dame Maggie’s performance just glitters with precision, disdain, comedy, and love. It was filmed for the BBC two years later and though the tape was mysteriously lost for many years, it has been rediscovered and restored and you can get a tantalizing glimpse of its greatness here. There are surely more important performances I could travel back to witness (Sarah Siddons’ first female Hamlet in 1775; Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth in 1888), maybe even more powerful ones (Janet Suzman as Cleopatra at the RSC in Stratford, 1972), but I can’t think of one that’d be more entertaining.

A young Maggie Smith as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
A young Maggie Smith as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. BBC.

There are so many honorable mentions to this list: Productions and performances I’ve seen and would happily revisit (Nigel Terry’s swashbuckling performance as Pericles at the RSC in 1989; Marc Singer and Fredi Olster in American Conservatory Theatre’s commedia-inspired Taming of the Shrew; the Troubador Theatre Company in LA’s mashup of rock and Shakespeare in Fleetwood Macbeth), plus groundbreaking 20th century productions (like Orson Welles’ “voodoo” Macbeth; Peter Brooks’ “circus” Midsummer Night’s Dream; or Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh performing Hamlet in 1937 at the actual Elsinore Castle in Denmark); plus almost a hundred other legendary performances listed here, but my final time-traveling destination has to be —

  1. THE BURNING OF THE GLOBE PLAYHOUSE

June 29, 1613 — almost exactly 407 years ago — is the day the original Globe Playhouse burned to the ground when a cannon fired in the middle of a performance of Henry VIII set fire to the thatched roof. Would I be able to stand by and watch it happen? Could I…strike that: Should I try to prevent it? If I succeeded and the Globe survived, what weird butterfly effect would that trigger? Would Shakespeare, long assumed to have retired to Stratford after the Globe burned, now remain in London, live longer, and write more plays? Would the Globe’s survival seem providential and dampen Puritan moral objections to plays and play-acting?

What I’d actually do is probably this: Grab whatever scripts and papers that would otherwise perish in the fire — maybe even some of them in Shakespeare’s hand! — and bring them back to the Folger for preservation and study.

3 Comments


  • In 1978 on a school trip to the Stratford Festival in Canada I got to see Maggie Smith as Lady MacBeth. Most riveting sleepwalking scene I have ever seen. She walked in to center stage put the candle on the ground crouched low and delivered the whole scene like that. That production also had the best scene change. They killed Banquo in near darkness and there was a lot of banging and crashing and when the lights came back up the entire stage was filled and set for the banquet scene (with Banquo seated among the guests)

  • I loved reading about the old productions and wish to see them. What about the recently found Maggie Smith et al production of Much Ado? How could one see that?


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