Oliver Herford & Celebrities of Yore

Exterior of The Players Club in New York City.  Photo taken in 2010.
The Players’ Club, #16 Gramercy Park Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Players (or the Players Club) is a private social club. It was founded in 1888 in New York City by actor Edwin Booth. Booth was often regarded as the greatest actor of his time. It was created in response to a perception that the theatre suffered due to a lack of interaction with the wider world of culture, literature, and art.

Booth purchased a mansion at 16 Gramercy Park and turned it into a social club for an eclectic range of artists of all types with the intention of integrating membership from the international theatre community . The club continues to this day.

Oliver Herford (1860 – 1935) was an English writer, humorist, artist, and illustrator. He was a longtime member of The Players.

Oliver Herford
At a dinner, Oliver Herford found himself sitting next to a very serious young woman.
“Tell me, Mr. Herford,” she said. “Have you no ambition beyond making people laugh?”
“Yes, I have,” he replied. “And someday I hope to gratify it.”
“Please tell me,” she said eagerly! “What is it?”
He said, “I want to throw an egg into an electric fan.”

Herford wrote much more than just satire, but his writing and illustration as a humorist resonate more than a century later.

An electric fan in 1899

In 1899 he published An Alphabet of Celebrities. It was formatted like a children’s primer, but the content was trendy, witty, and farcical. It is filled with comedic jabs at every notable household name of the time. This included actors, playwrights, novelists, politicians, world leaders, Biblical personas, characters in popular fiction, and many more.

The entire book is illustrations. The printing process allowed only two colors of ink and included no half-tones. He captures the likenesses of celebrities and historical figures and manages to lampoon them in every kind of comedic state.

Click on the pages in the embedded media below to review the entire book.

B is for Bernhardt, who fails to awaken Much feeling in Bismark, Barabbas, and Bacon.

Sarah Bernhardt was one of the very most prominent and renowned stage actresses of her time plus a contemporary of Herford and fellow Players Club member.
Here, she seems to be sending current & historical leaders into comas, along with a
figure from the New Testament.

I is for Ibsen reciting a play while Irving and Ingersoll hasten away.

Playwright Henrik Ibsen was another contemporary of Herford, as was Actor Sir Henry Irving and writer Robert G. Ingersoll. This book is more than a whimsical tour through the alphabet; Herford is systematically razzing everyone in his circle.
When you look up photos of these people, the caricatures are spot-on, too!

Left-to-right: Robert G. Ingersoll, Sir Henry Irving, and Henrik Ibsen

Y is for Young, the great Mormon Saint, Who thinks little Yum Yum and Yvette so quaint, He has to be instantly held in restraint.

This one might be my favorite. Yvette Guilbert (born Emma Laure Esther Guilbert ) was a French cabaret singer and actress of the Belle Époque. Yum Yum is the heroine in The Mikado operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan (originally opened in 1885). Brigham Young, of course, was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) from 1847 until his death in 1877 (not long before this publication). He had 55 wives and 56 children. Here he is so intent on pursuing Yvette and Yum Yum that he must be restrained by an unidentified police officer.

The internet makes the entire book into a rewarding scavenger hunt. Plugging each character name into a search results in (really nerdy) laughs.

I do not expect everyone who reads this to take the time to look up every character in this book.

But I know that some of you (and you already know who you are), most definitely, will.

Old World Spectacle

Our methods of producing spectacle evolve across the decades. New technology is not necessarily more miraculous than the older methods. Every era has its own special stage magic. 17th century Europe enjoyed theaters equipped with wing-and-drop scenery combined with the pole-and-chariot system.

Český Krumlov is in the southern Czech Republic. There, The Castle Theatre sits behind the moat near one wing of the castle. A Baroque theatre space with fully functioning machinery survives there today.

Baroque opera in the Castle Theatre in Cesky Krumlov (southern Czech Republic). Pole-and-chariot set change system, in support of a wing-and-drop set.

A pole-and-chariot system is a method for moving scenery. There are slots in the floor. Wall sections or other scenic elements are carried on vertical poles that extend down through the stage into a machine-room below-deck.

A wing-and-drop set is a set made up of shaped and painted 2D elements, usually fabric. These include vertical pieces on the side and horizontal pieces across the top. Together with a backdrop, they often include forced perspective to create the illusion of a grandiose interior or exterior. By changing the elements quickly with machinery, the entire setting is changed.

Quotable Reviews

    • “I’ve knocked everything in this show except the chorus girls’ knees, and there God anticipated me.”

      – George Jean Nathan on a musical in the 1920s.

    • “It is longeth and it stinketh.”

      – Caroline Alice Lejeune on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, (1939).

    • “A bad play saved by a bad performance.”

      – George S. Kaufman regarding Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark, (1939).

Satire through the Centuries


Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia in The Grecian Daughter, 1782

Sarah Siddons was born in Wales in 1755. She became one of the most prominent actresses of the 18th century, famous in particular for playing Lady Macbeth. She remains notable and memorable even today. The Sarah Siddons Society in Chicago presents theatre scholarships in her name annually.

Siddons made her first appearance in Dublin in 1784. An Irish newspaper, apparently, felt that the hype surrounding her over in London was out of control.
What follows is their writeup, as documented a century later in English As She Is Wrote, which was itself published well over a hundred years ago, in 1883.

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella.

From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess!

The house was crowded with hundreds more than it could hold, with thousands of admiring spectators who went away without a sight.

This extraordinary phenomenon of tragic excellence! this star of Melpomene! this comet of the stage! this sun of the firmament of Muses! this moon of blank verse! this queen and princess of tears! this Donellan of the poisoned dagger! this empress of pistol and dagger! this chaos of Shakespeare! this world of weeping clouds! this Juno commanding aspects! this Terpsichore of the curtains and scenic! this Proserpine of fire and excitement! this Katterfelto of wonders! exceeded expectation, went beyond belief and soared above all the natural powers of description! She was nature itself! She was the most exquisite work of art!

She was the very daisy, primrose, tuberose, sweet brier, furze blossom, gilliflower wall flower, cauliflower, auricula, and rosemary! In short, she was the bouquet of Parnassus! When expectations were so high, it was thought she would be injured by her appearance, but it was the audience who were injured: several fainted before the curtain drew up!

When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat.

But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics.

The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

English As She Is Wrote: Showing Curious Ways in Which the English Language May Be Made to Convey Ideas or Obscure Them. A Companion to “English As She Is Spoke.”. New York: D. Appleton & co., 1883
View source here.

At the Theatre: To the Lady Behind Me

A.P. Herbert 1890-1971

A.P. Herbert 1890-1971

A.P. Herbert 1890-1971

Dear Madam, you have seen this play;
I never saw it till today.
You know the details of the plot,
But, let me tell you, I do not.
The author seeks to keep from me
The murderer’s identity,
And you are not a friend of his
If you keep shouting who it is.
The actors in their funny way
Have several funny things to say,
But they do not amuse me more
If you have said them just before;
The merit of the drama lies,
I understand, in some surprise;
But the surprise must now be small
Since you have just foretold it all.
The lady you have brought with you
Is, I infer, a half-wit too,
But I can understand the piece
Without assistance from your niece.
In short, foul woman, it would suit
Me just as well if you were mute;
In fact, to make my meaning plain,
I trust you will not speak again.
And – may I add one human touch? –
Don’t breathe upon my neck so much.

Old New York

This composition of 28 clips of New York City ranges from 1896 to 1905.  They are “the oldest surviving footage of recognizable parts of New York.”

The footage includes Times Square, The Hippodrome, Old Madison Square Garden, Union Square, and much more; even the time-lapsed demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th street.

It includes a constant map on the left which shows you where you are in the city.

We recommend viewing this full-screen.

Thank you, Yestervid.

Source: Yestervid. December, 2014. Oldest Footage of New York City Ever.  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQR-HKzESsM