The Mystery Shakespeare Plot

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
April 11, 2016
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
King Henry V

Henry V. Stage-plot. Directions for scenery, curtains, drops, etc. with drawings and diagrams.

This post is a report by volunteer/former intern Emma Winter Zeig on her research leading to the identification of an artifact in the exhibition, Shakespeare's Star Turn in America.

Who among us can resist a mystery? While doing research for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s current exhibition, Shakespeare’s Star Turn in America, I happened across an entry in the online catalog as intriguing as it was mysterious. The entry was listed as a script for King Henry V, but the description said “Scene Plot” and the date was listed, cryptically, as “18-?” Upon examination, the artifact provided more questions than answers. It was initially folded to the size of a dime store novel, but unfolded into an oddly shaped piece of material that was ruled like a ledger, but felt like starched muslin, it was a scene plot, with a careful list of set pieces in each scene of the play, accompanied by rough drawings of their arrangement. Absent, however, was any kind of label or date with which to place the production for which it was drawn.

I scoured the text of the scene plot, looking for proper nouns that appeared on the plot, but not in Henry V. I found three, including one that said “Haas Palace Cloth,” which I posited might refer to someone involved in creating the backdrop. However, this angle yielded no leads, so I was back to square one. Undeterred, I sat down with Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, the curator, to see if we could narrow down the potential date range. We were fairly confident in the nineteenth century listing in the catalog, since it didn’t have the standardized drafting style or drafter’s handwriting that is more common in twentieth century plots. That still left us with at least a century of Henry V productions.

What had impressed me about the design from the beginning was its scale; there are multiple sets with more than one level, and an almost excessive amount of backdrops. The set has wings, but the large amount of three dimensional elements indicate that it was moving away from the traditional “wing and border” style, a transition that was happening throughout thenineteenth century, suggesting a later production. It still seemed like a lot of scenery for a traveling production, unless they were loading scenery on a train, which meant that I could limit my search to cities that were railway hubs.

I continued searching until I read a review of the New York City opening of a production that toured in 1875. The World’s reviewer noted that “Mr. Calvert…has adopted a French custom, and drops the tableau curtain at the end of each scene.” This observation struck a chord, so I consulted my reference photos of the plot, and sure enough, there was a note after each scene: “Curtain descends.”

Charles Calvert was the director of the 1875 Henry V that was “the finest spectacle that has ever been presented on the American stage” according to one reporter. Though many reporters remarked on the sheer size of the set, I was not yet convinced that this was the production I had been seeking.

I read as many reviews as I could using articles found in America’s Historical Newspapers, looking for specific details I could match to the scene plot, though this proved difficult, since so many of the features described by reviewers could have belonged to any set of Henry V. I then started to look for places where the scene plot departed from the script as written by Shakespeare, in order to find what truly made this production unique.

As written, Act I, Scene V takes place in a council chamber in Southampton, but the scene plot clearly places it on a dock, with notations for water, ships, and a gang plank. A review of the Calvert production noted “The scene…gave a…view of the beach at Southampton,” implying that both scenes had a seaside theme. In the script of Henry V, Henry’s triumphal return to London is not seen on stage, but recalled by a speaker in a prologue that begins Act V. This return was the centerpiece of the Calvert production, with one reviewer recalling “At the end of the fourth act a scene representing King Henry’s reception on his return to London brought the show to its limit of magnificence.” The Calvert production altered the text by producing the scene, but they also moved it from the beginning of Act V to the end of Act IV. On the scene plot, the last scene in Act IV takes place on a street in front of an arch, just like the Calvert production, and the drop behind it is called the “London City Drop,” suggesting that it was also a staging of Henry’s return.

Without the names and dates of a conventionally labeled scene plot, it is hard to say with certainty that the plot documents the Calvert production, but it is definitely possible that the two are one and the same. Sarony, NY, photographed actors on what seems like set elements, publishing a series of cabinet photographs.

We were able to verify that it was designed for touring by looking at Henry V program files and scrapbooks in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. The production began at Calvert’s Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, toured North America for parts of 3 years, and ended its travels in Australia, where the lead actor remained.

King Henry V (1875). TH-26488

King Henry V (1875). Image ID: TH-26488

The title of “finest spectacle” is a hard one to defend, but the Calvert Henry V would have had a strong case. The actual cast of Henry V was 54 actors, but the company was rounded out by crew and extras numbering in the hundreds, with one reviewer noting “…the one feature which most conspicuously distinguished the revival of Henry the unprecedented number of people and horses which are frequently on the stage at the same time.” These numbers were used to complete the crowd and battle scenes, but also to stage a series of tableaux vivant.

The tableau at the end of Henry’s London return was so well received that the curtain was raised and lowered several times as long as the audience’s applause held out. The production was not without its problems; George Ringold, the production’s Henry, came down with a cold that affected his voice on opening night, which was noted by every single reviewer, with varying degrees of understanding. Another obstacle was the impression among several reviewers that the source material itself was inferior: “far from being dramatic in the literary sense in which we apply that word to the other and greater plays of Shakespeare… its interest is a military one mainly, and its poetic beauties are…incidental.”

Despite others’ doubts, Calvert was confident in the play and in his mission. On the opening night, he took the stage and spoke about his wish to share Shakespeare with the public, ending with a request to the audience that echoes centuries of scholars, readers, and theatergoers who have discovered a love of the Bard: “If I speak too much like an enthusiast pray remember, ladies and gentlemen, that on this subject I am one, and forgive me.”