An old actor at the Player's Club told me that Edwin Booth first impersonated Hamlet when a barnstormer in California. There were few theatres, but the hotels were provided with crude assembly rooms for strolling players.
The youth played in the blear hotel. The rafters gleamed with glories strange. And winds of mourning Elsinore Howling at chance and fate and change; Voices of old Europe's dead Disturbed the new-built cattle-shed, The street, the high and solemn range.
The while the coyote barked afar All shadowy was the battlement. The ranch-boys huddled and grew pale, Youths who had come on riot bent. Forgot were pranks well-planned to sting. Behold there rose a ghostly king, And veils of smoking Hell were rent.
When Edwin Booth played Hamlet, then The camp-drab's tears could not but flow. Then Romance lived and breathed and burned. She felt the frail queen-mother's woe, Thrilled for Ophelia, fond and blind, And Hamlet, cruel, yet so kind, And moaned, his proud words hurt her so.
A haunted place, though new and harsh! The Indian and the Chinaman And Mexican were fain to learn What had subdued the Saxon clan. Why did they mumble, brood, and stare When the court-players curtsied fair And the Gonzago scene began?
And ah, the duel scene at last! They cheered their prince with stamping feet. A death-fight in a palace! Yea, With velvet hangings incomplete, A pasteboard throne, a pasteboard crown, And yet a monarch tumbled down, A brave lad fought in splendor meet.
Was it a palace or a barn? Immortal as the gods he flamed. There in his last great hour of rage His foil avenged a mother shamed. In duty stern, in purpose deep He drove that king to his black sleep And died, all godlike and untamed.
I was not born in that far day. I hear the tale from heads grown white. And then I walk that earlier street, The mining camp at candle-light. I meet him wrapped in musings fine Upon some whispering silvery line He yet resolves to speak aright.
II. EPITAPH FOR JOHN BUNNY, MOTION PICTURE COMEDIAN
In which he is remembered in similitude, by reference to Yorick, the king's jester, who died when Hamlet and Ophelia were children.
Yorick is dead. Boy Hamlet walks forlorn Beneath the battlements of Elsinore. Where are those oddities and capers now That used to "set the table on a roar"?
And do his bauble-bells beyond the clouds Ring out, and shake with mirth the planets bright? No doubt he brings the blessed dead good cheer, But silence broods on Elsinore tonight.
That little elf, Ophelia, eight years old, Upon her battered doll's staunch bosom weeps. ("O best of men, that wove glad fairy-tales.") With tear-burned face, at last the darling sleeps.
Hamlet himself could not give cheer or help, Though firm and brave, with his boy-face controlled. For every game they started out to play Yorick invented, in the days of old.
The times are out of joint! O cursed spite! The noble jester Yorick comes no more. And Hamlet hides his tears in boyish pride By some lone turret-stair of Elsinore.