Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
It was January 25, 1897, the opening night of William Shakespeare’s romance Cymbeline, based on the legend of an early Celtic British king, at Wallack’s Theatre. The lavish production starred the much celebrated Margaret Mather. No expense had been spared. As theatrical manager John G. Magle told the the New York Times, “It was to have been the greatest performance of Cymbeline ever presented on this planet.”
Actor E. J. Henley played the part of Iachimo, a character that does not spend much time on stage but is nevertheless essential to the action of the plot. As Mr. Henley was crossing the lobby on the way to his dressing room, he was confronted by a police officer with a warrant for his arrest. His accuser was a Mrs. Hoffman Martin, a theatrical producer who claimed Mr. Henley owed her money after backing out of a planned theatrical engagement. In self defense, Mr. Henley claimed that Mrs. Martin’s play was terrible, “a crass, gross play, at best.” Though he was released on bond and able to perform the following night, this production of Shakespeare’s play was off to an especially dramatic start.
The story of Cymbeline is thick with scandal. The eponymous character rules Britain with his second wife, credited simply as “Queen.” Imogen, his daughter from his first marriage is his only heir after his two sons were inconveniently kidnapped in their infancy. Cloten, his stepson, is determined to marry Imogen and secure his place in the line of succession, a plot devised by his mother (Imogen’s stepmother). Unbeknownst to anyone, however, Imogen has already exchanged tokens of love with the very brave and very bold Pothumus Leonatus. Everybody with me, so far? Good.
Cymbeline is not happy with the secret marriage, and he banishes Leonatus from court. Leonatus then makes a bet on the purity of Imogen, and when he is tricked into thinking her unfaithful, he plots to kill her. Imogen, believing she will be reunited with her love, disguises herself as a man and travels to Wales. In a Welsh cave, she unwittingly meets her two long-lost brothers – now grown men – and they all become friends. Cloten pursues Imogen plotting to kill her and Leonatus. Meanwhile, representatives of the Roman empire are demanding Cymbeline pay his proper tribute as a vassal. The story becomes more complicated with a battle and the intercession of an assortment of family ghosts, but eventually everything is set to right: Cymbeline’s kingdom is secure and his sons restored to him, the Queen and Cloten are dead, and Imogen and Leonatus are happily reunited.
Written toward the end of Shakespeare’s career (1609-1610), Cymbeline contains a hodgepodge of plot devices from other plays: there’s Imogen disguised as a man (Twelfth Night, As You Like It), Leonatus’s being fooled into thinking his love unfaithful (Othello, Much Ado About Nothing), the secret exchange of love tokens (Troilus and Cressida), a potion that makes the drinker appear dead when she is actually asleep (Romeo and Juliet), and the appearance of ancestral spirits (Hamlet). It’s like a greatest hits of Shakespeare.
Though it was performed for the 2007-2008 season at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Cymbeline was only performed twice on Broadway in the 20th century. A 1906 production at Astor Theatre starred Viola Allen as Imogen. In 1923, Julia Marlowe played Imogen at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre opposite her husband E. H. Sothern as Posthumus Leonatus. The Museum’s collections contain annotated scripts from both Marlowe and Sothern. Below is a page from Marlowe’s script for the scene where Imogen draws her sword before tentatively entering a cave.
Last week, The Public opened a new production of Cymbeline as part of the free Shakespeare in the Park series this summer. Once you’ve got your same-day ticket for that performance in hand, come check out the great exhibitions and programing at the Museum.