O Romeo, Romeo

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
February 27, 2016
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Romeo and Juliet, Margaret Mather, poster

Promotional Brochure, "Thoughts of Prominent Men Regarding Margaret Mather," for her Romeo and Juliet tour, back cover, 1880s.

Shakespeare's Star Turn in America, the new exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, is part of an international celebration of Shakespeare.   With the exhibition and public programs, we are also develping an educator's portal to help classroom teachers and teaching artists find material in the catalogue and Digital Collection.

Our exhibition key image is the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.   A very graphic image of Romeo and Juliet embracing -- you can decide for yourself if it is the start or end of the scene.   The image was created for a promotional pamphlet.  It was created for J. M. Hill, producer and promoter, to find bookings and audiences for the Canadian actress Margaret Mather, making her US debut as Juliet at McVicker’s Theater, Chicago on August 28, 1882.  The brochure, and two similar promotional publications, were typical of the era in that they cited authority.  The front cover bears the title “Thoughts of Prominent Men,” and includes short essays by municipal leaders as well as drama critics.  Followers of my blogs know that I collect false and irrelevant authority, but, in this case, the essays do focus on how the actress interpreted the role.  

The brochures were excellent examples of 4-color engraved plate printing.  They were unusual in that Mather was credited with the illustrations – the image of the balcony scene here, a full-length portrait as Rosalind (in male garb as Ganymede) and an oil painting of The Death of Juliet.  Juliet’s false and final death scenes were cited in reviews of her performance – one said that she rolled down a staircase after taking the potion.  The painting shows her on a shallow, paved path leading from the crypt. Although it was expected that well bred young women could sketch, it was very unusual for actresses to be credited with illustrating their own productions.

Mather died young in 1898 while on tour with her Shakespeare repertory of Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It and an unusual revival of Cymbeline

There is a prompt script documenting Mather’s performance as Juliet in the Billy Rose Theatre Division.  Like most performer scripts, it is based on a published book, in this case, a Samuel French acting edition. Romeo and Juliet. A tragedy in five acts, by William Shakespeare.   It reveals “the stage business, cast of characters, costumes, relative positions, &c.

The exhibition was planned to focus attention on LPA’s extraordinary collection of documentations of Shakespeare performance in North America.  But, in this case, I would look to the illustration to learn why Mather’s Juliet is still remembered.