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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Singular “Hamlet”

Guest Blogger Dept.: Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896), who wrote as Bill Nye, was a lawyer, postmaster, journalist, and lecturer in a career that took him across the United States and back – he was postmaster of Laramie City, Wyoming, before Wyoming was even a state – and during which he developed a comic voice with a uniquely American flavor. His account of James Owen O’Connor’s “Hamlet” comes from a collection of short pieces Nye put together at the end of his life.


Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye
THE CLOSING DEBUT of that great Shakespearian humorist and emotional ass, Mr. James Owen O’Connor, at the Star Theater, will never be forgotten. During his extraordinary histrionic career he gave his individual and amazing renditions of Hamlet, Phidias, Shylock, Othello, and Richelieu. I think I liked his Hamlet best, and yet it was a pleasure to see him in anything wherein he killed himself.

Encouraged by the success of beautiful but self-made actresses, and hoping to win a place for himself and his portrait in the great soap and cigarette galaxy, Mr. O’Connor placed himself in the hands of some misguided elocutionist, and then sought to educate the people of New York and elocute them out of their thralldom up into the glorious light of the O’Connor school of acting.

The first week he was in the hands of the critics, and they spoke quite serenely of his methods. Later, it was deemed best to place his merits in the hands of a man who would be on an equal footing with him. What O’Connor wanted was one of his peers, who would therefore judge him fairly. I was selected because I know nothing whatever about acting and would thus be on an equality with Mr. O’Connor.

After seeing his Hamlet I was of the opinion that he did wisely in choosing New York for debutting purposes, for had he chosen Denver, Colorado, at the end of the third act kind hands would have removed him from the stage by means of benzine and a rag.

I understand that Mr. O’Connor charged Messrs. Henry E. Abbey and Henry Irving with using their influence among the masses in order to prejudice said masses against Mr. O’Connor, thus making it unpleasant for him to act, and inciting in the audience a feeling of gentle but evident hostility, which Mr. O’Connor deprecated very much whenever he could get a chance to do so. I looked into this matter a little and I do not think it was true. Until almost the end of Mr. O’Connor’s career, Messrs. Abbey and Irving were not aware of his great metropolitan success, and it is generally believed among the friends of the two former gentlemen that they did not feel it so keenly as Mr. O’Connor was led to suppose.

But James Owen O’Connor did one thing which I take the liberty of publicly alluding to. He took that saddest and most melancholy bit of bloody history, trimmed with assassinations down the back and looped up with remorse, insanity, duplicity and unrequited love, and he filled it with silvery laughter and cauliflower and mirth, and various other groceries which the audience throw in from time to time, thus making it more of a spectacular piece than under the conservative management of such old-school men as Booth, who seem to think that Hamlet should be soaked full of sadness.

I went to see Hamlet, thinking that I would be welcome, for my sympathies were with James when I heard that Mr. Irving was picking on him and seeking to injure him. I went to the box office and explained who I was, and stated that I had been detailed to come and see Mr. O’Connor act; also that in what I might say afterwards my instructions were to give it to Abbey and Irving if I found that they had tampered with the audience in any way.

The man in the box office did not recognize me, but said that Mr. Fox would extend to me the usual courtesies. I asked where Mr. Fox could be found, and he said inside. I then started to go inside, but ran against a total stranger, who was “on the door,” as we say. He was feeding red and yellow tickets into a large tin oven, and looking far, far away. I conversed with him in low, passionate tones, and asked him where Mr. Fox could be found. He did not know, but thought he was still in Europe. I went back and told the box office that Mr. Fox was in Europe. He said No, I would find him inside. “Well, but how shall I get inside?” I asked eagerly, for I could already, I fancied, hear the orchestra beginning to twang its lyre.

“Walk in,” said he, taking in $2 and giving back 50 cents in change to a man with a dead cat in his overcoat pocket.

I went back, and springing lightly over the iron railing while the gatekeeper was thinking over his glorious past, I went all around over the theater looking for Mr. Fox. I found him haggling over the price of some vegetables which he was selling at the stage door and which had been contributed by admirers and old subscribers to Mr. O’Connor at a previous performance.

When Mr. Fox got through with that I presented to him my card, which is as good a piece of job work in colors as was ever done west of the Missouri river, and to which I frequently point with pride.

Mr. Fox said he was sorry, but that Mr. O’Connor had instructed him to extend no courtesies whatever to the press. The press, he claimed, had said something derogatory to Mr. O’Connor as a tragedian, and while he personally would be tickled to death to give me two divans and a folding-bed near the large fiddle, he must do as Mr. O’Connor had bid – or bade him, I forget which; and so, restraining his tears with great difficulty, he sent me back to the entrance and although I was already admitted in a general way, I went to the box office and purchased a seat. I believe now that Mr. Fox thought he had virtually excluded me from the house when he told me I should have to pay in order to get in.

I bought a seat in the parquet and went in. The audience was not large and there were not more than a dozen ladies present.

Pretty soon the orchestra began to ooze in through a little opening under the stage. Then the overture was given. It was called “Egmont.” The curtain now arose on a scene in Denmark. I had asked an usher to take a note to Mr. O’Connor requesting an audience, but the boy had returned with the statement that Mr. O’Connor was busy rehearsing his soliloquy and removing a shirred egg from his outer clothing.

He also said he could not promise an audience to any one. It was all he could do to get one for himself.

So the play went on. Elsinore, where the first act takes place, is in front of a large stone water tank, where two gentlemen armed with long-handled hay knives are on guard.

All at once a ghost who walks with an overstrung Chickering action and stiff, jerky, Waterbury movement, comes in, wearing a dark mosquito net over his head – so that harsh critics can not truly say there are any flies on him, I presume. When the ghost enters most every one enjoys it. Nobody seems to be frightened at all. I knew it was not a ghost as quick as I looked at it. One man in the gallery hit the ghost on the head with a soda cracker, which made him jump and feel of his ear; so I knew then that it was only a man made up to look like a presence.

One of the guards, whose name, I think, was Smith, had a droop to his legs and an instability about the knees which were highly enjoyable. He walked like a frozen-toed hen, and stood first on one foot and then on the other, with almost human intelligence. His support was about as poor as O’Connor’s.

After a while the ghost vanished with what is called a stately tread, but I would regard it more as a territorial tread. Horatio did quite well, and the audience frequently listened to him. Still, he was about the only one who did not receive crackers or cheese as a slight testimonial of regard from admirers in the audience.

Finally, Mr. James Owen O’Connor entered. It was fully five minutes before he could be heard, and even then he could not. His mouth moved now and then, and a gesture would suddenly burst forth, but I did not hear what he said. At least I could not hear distinctly what he said. After awhile, as people got tired and went away, I could hear better.

Mr. O’Connor introduced into his Hamlet a set of gestures evidently intended for another play. People who are going to act out on the stage can not be too careful in getting a good assortment of gestures that will fit the play itself. James had provided himself with a set of gestures which might do for Little Eva, or “Ten Nights in a Bar-room,” but they did not fit Hamlet. There is where he makes a mistake. Hamlet is a man whose victuals don’t agree with him. He feels depressed and talks about sticking a bodkin into himself, but Mr. O’Connor gives him a light, elastic step, and an air of persiflage, bonhomie, and frisk, which do not match the character.

Mr. O’Connor sought in his conception and interpretation of Hamlet to give it a free and jaunty Kokomo flavor – a nameless twang of tansy and dried apples, which Shakespeare himself failed to sock into his great drama.

James did this, and more. He took the wild-eyed and morbid Blackwell’s Island Hamlet, and made him a $2 parlor humorist who could be the life of the party, or give lessons in elocution, and take applause or crackers and cheese in return for the same.

There is really a good lesson to be learned from the pitiful and pathetic tale of James Owen O’Connor. Injudicious friends, doubtless, overestimated his value, and unduly praised his Smart Aleckutionary powers. Loving himself unwisely but too extensively, he was led away into the great, untried purgatory of public scrutiny, and the general indictment followed.

The truth stands out brighter and stronger than ever that there is no cut across lots to fame or success. He who seeks to jump from mediocrity to a glittering triumph over the heads of the patient student, and the earnest, industrious candidate who is willing to bide his time, gets what James Owen O’Connor received – the just condemnation of those who are abundantly able to judge.

In seeking to combine the melancholy beauty of Hamlet’s deep and earnest pathos with the gentle humor of “A Hole in the Ground,” Mr. O’Connor evidently corked himself, as we say at the Browning Club, and it was but justice after all. Before we curse the condemnation of the people and the press, let us carefully and prayerfully look ourselves over, and see if we have not overestimated ourselves.

There are many men alive to-day who do not dare say anything without first thinking how it will read in their memoirs – men whom we can not, therefore, thoroughly enjoy until they are dead, and yet whose graves will be kept green only so long as the appropriation lasts.

– Bill Nye, from A Guest at the Ludlow and Other Stories, The Bowen-Merrill Co., 1896, pp. 81-91. (Here’s another perspective on “Hamlet.”)


It turns out that O’Connor garnered quite a reputation for his over-the-top Shakespeare, as this nostalgic account from a 1909 issue of the New York-based The Theatre magazine reveals:

PITY, THE ACTOR WHO essays a part for which he is fated by nature to fail in, never receives; derision and scorn are his, and an audience, whether gathered in the Bowery or on Broadway, is always unfeeling. ... Once or twice in every generation a would-be actor of this unfortunate class arises and exhibits his infirmity to the public scorn. His choice of play is usually “Hamlet,” though “Richard III” and other Shakespearian roles attract him. The generic term that has come to be applied to this poor being is “Hamlet Behind a Net.”

(Author Willis Steell notes that twenty years earlier, one of the leading behind-the-net Hamlets was James Owen O’Connor.)

Not James Owen O'Connor
... (A)n enterprising vaudeville agent thought he saw money in this new star, and he engaged him for a two weeks’ trial. Thirty minutes of the Melancholy Done by “the greatest living exponent of the bard” was advertised, and when James Owen O’Connor made his opening bow at Proctor’s the crowd was ready for him. Two nights of freedom from the net was experiment enough; it had to go up as a measure of safety for human life. James Owen O’Connor’s was in danger. This Irish actor was perfectly sane. He was out for the money that could be made by his specialty, and yet the most interesting part of his performance, and the one that “went best” with his audience, was the tirade, nightly delivered, against the men and women whose shrieks of “fayndish” merriment interrupted the play. Shaking his fist behind the safe enclosure of the net James Owen O’Connor thundered for fifteen minutes about the “daygraydation” of the “teeayter” and the ignorant and “coorse tratement of a borun actor by men who were no better than blackgyards!”

Little of this could be heard, and the actor denounced his audience mainly in dumb show, for no sooner had a word been uttered by him than they roared and shouted with cruel glee. It was a painful exhibition.

Is has been said that O’Connor was not an actor; this must be amended. His fits of rage were splendid acting, for it was only acting. In his dressing room the man would sit and quietly laugh at the way he had duped his audience. He knew no easier way, he said, to “earrun” $250 a week. It is much to he feared that James Owen O’Connor was a “fake” as a “crushed tragedian.”

– Willis Steell, excerpted from “Acting Hamlet Behind a Net,” The Theatre, Vol. X No. 103, September 1909.


It didn’t end well for O’Connor, who at least merited an obit in the New York Times. Turns out that the supposedly Irish actor was born in New York, and practiced a variety of occupations before going insane enough to end up in an asylum. You who aspire to a theatrical career are hereby warned. Here’s an excerpt from that obit:

JAMES OWEN O’CONNOR, who has been actor, preacher, and lawyer, by turns, and almost a doctor, died at Morris Plains Asylum on Saturday. It is alleged that death was not due to paresis, but Mrs. O’Connor says it was caused by an ailment of the kidneys. She also says that an autopsy was made at the asylum, and that it showed that death was not due to paresis, and that Mr. O’Connor’s brain was unusually large.

Still Not James Owen O'Connor
Mr. O’Connor was born in New-York on April 1, 1839. He was graduated at the Georgetown University, and afterward studied law in Columbia Law School, meanwhile acting as a clerk in his father’s real estate office. After being admitted to the bar he practiced law successfully for several years. He went to England in 1865, and there, although his parents were Roman Catholics, and had reared him in their faith, he became a convert to the Baptist faith, and was admitted to the ministry. He varied his preaching occasionally by acting, and at one time starred through the provinces at the head of his own company.

In 1876 Mr. O’Connor returned to this country, and resumed his law practice, at the same time studying medicine. He was about to become a physician when his father died, and he decided to abandon both law and medicine, and return to the stage. This he did in 1884, appearing In a round of Shakespearean characters in New-York and other cities. He was regarded as an eccentric tragedian, and he was received with shouts of derision wherever he appeared. These did not drive him from the stage, however, and he made considerable money by his exhibitions.

Mr. O’Connor played his last engagement at Newman’s Theatre, a variety hall in this city, two years ago, his wife playing Ophelia to his Hamlet. The engagement continued only a few nights, Mr. O’Connor being finally driven from the stage by a shower of vegetables. While he never cared what his audiences did, the notices he received from the press worried him, and Mrs. O’Connor attributes his insanity to this cause. He first became violent about two years ago, but he became apparently sane soon after, and was released. He experienced a second attack a few months later, and was then sent to the asylum.

– The New York Times, 3 April 1894

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