Emily Jordan Folger’s Shakespeare Play Diary 1906 – 1930

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Emily Jordan Folger’s Shakespeare Play Diary 1906 – 1930

By Stephen Grant

Emily Jordan Folger in the Founders’ Room of the Folger Shakespeare Library c1934 wearing Julia Marlowe’s purple velvet Portia gown.

Dodd, Mead Co. in New York produced a handy hardback book 5×8 inches in size, green in color, and full of blank pages: Plays I have Seen. From 1906 until 1930, the year her husband Henry Clay Folger died, Emily Jordan Folger filled the volume with her wavy scrawl to record no fewer than 129 performances. She saved all her tickets. We know where she sat and what she paid: the best matinee seat cost $1.50, orchestra, $3. Emily offered wide-ranging analysis of 125 Shakespearian performances—some in Italian, French, or German—that she saw in Manhattan or Brooklyn, occasionally in Stratford-upon-Avon, and once at her alma mater Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Scholars wishing to delve into the rich archive can travel to the Folger Shakespeare Library two blocks from the U. S. Capitol, obtain a reader’s card, and ask to consult gray archival box no. 38 in Folger Coll. Here is a taste.

Emily Folger generally attended matinee performances with family and friends. A senior executive at Standard Oil Company of New York, Henry managed to accompany her to half of them. Several times Emily returned to attend a second performance (where she was once pleased to detect “more freedom and smoothness”) to see whether the actors had benefited from criticism in the press. She recorded the names of the actors and actresses, which actors “caught the spirit of the play” and which had not, their vocal quality, glibness of speech, eye contact, facial mobility. She noted when the costumes were “well-colored,” “historically accurate,” or “glaring and hideous,” if the scenery was “poor,” “elaborate,” “beautiful,” or “post-Impressionist,” whether the waits were long, if the actors were well made up, which actors required prompting and how much, how many “lispers” or actors with deficient elocution, the quality of the orchestration, how full the house was, how many encores. In this remarkable collection of personal observations, Emily even reported comments by people sitting near her. In Emily’s view, the greatest sin was committed when the “true text of Shakespeare” was cut. She scornfully wrote “The play is cut cut cut” after the March 25, 1907 performance in Italian of The Merchant of Venice at the New York Lyric Theatre. To the Folgers Shakespeare was inviolable.

The couple attended every performance possible of Julia Marlowe and her husband Edward Hugh Sothern. While in Much Ado About Nothing performed at New York’s Academy of Music on June 9, 1906 Emily found Julia Marlowe “at her best,” the following year Emily considered her “stagey” and her costumes “worn and dingy” in Twelfth Night at the Lyric Theatre. On another occasion Emily mused, “We still think that Miss Marlowe doesn’t comprehend the part. Critic William Winter says that she makes Cleopatra into a Julia Marlowe. Quite true.” In a December 10, 1910 performance of Macbeth featuring Sothern and Marlowe in the Broadway Theatre, the Folgers ascertained that the audience lost some of the drama due to poor elocution. Sothern and Marlowe returned to New York to perform Much Ado About Nothing at the Schubert on November 2, 1912 in a house Emily described as “full to overflowing.” She concluded, He should ask Schubert for 10 weeks next season not 5.”

The final entry in the diary was the novelty of a “talking movie.” On February 5, 1930, Emily saw Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in first American feature-length talking Shakespearean film, The Taming of the Shrew, created the preceding year. Emily judged it as “Of course not Shakespeare, but entertaining. Besides, it’s amazing what 35 cents can offer!”

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.

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