Charles Fechter as Hamlet

June 25, 2013

Charles Fechter (1824-1879), Anglo-French actor, as Hamlet
(photo: Boning & Small, London, circa 1872)

Charles Albert Fechter’s first appearance as Hamlet in England took place in March 1861, prompting The Athenaeum (23 March 1861) to write, ‘Mr. Fechter does not act; he is Hamlet.’ He afterwards played the part many times, including at Niblo’s Garden, New York, at the beginning of 1870 previous to a tour of the United States, visiting Boston, Philadelphia and other cities.

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‘The poet – his name is of no consequence – has defined the evening as
‘“The close of the day when the HAMLET is still.”
‘Evidently he was a bucolle, and not a metropolitan poet. Otherwise he would have remembered that the close of the day, or, to speak with mathematical accuracy, the hour of eight P.M., is precisely the time when the HAMLET of a well-regulated theatrical community begins to make himself vocally prominent. A few nights since, we had no less than three HAMLETS propounding at the same time the unnecessary question, whether to be or not to be is the correct thing, The serious HAMLET of the eagle eye, and the burlesque HAMLET of the vulpine nose, are with us yet; but the rival of the latter, the HAMLET of the taurine neck, has gone to Boston, where his waggish peculiarity will be better appreciated than it was in this Democratic city.
‘The late Mr. WEGG prided himself upon being a literary man – with a wooden leg. Mr. FECHTER aspired to be a HAMLET – with a yellow wig. Mr. WEGG had this advantage over Mr. FECHTER, that his literary ability did not wholly depend upon his ligneous leg. Mr. FECHTER’S HAMLET, on the contrary, owes its existence solely to his wig. The key to his popularity must be sought in his yellow locks.
‘There are, it is true, meritorious points in Mr. FECHTER’S Dane. One is his skill in fencing; another, the fact that he finally suffers himself to be killed. Unfortunately, this latter redeeming incident takes place only in the last scene of the play, and the Fat Prince has therefore abundant previous opportunity to mar the superb acting of Miss [Carlotta] LECLERCQ. Why this admirable artist did not insist that her OPHELIA should receive a better support than was furnished by Messrs. BANGS, [Milnes] LEVICK, and FECHTER, at Niblo’s Garden, is an insoluble mystery. She must have perceived that absurdity of drowning herself for a Prince – fair, fat, and faulty – who refused to give her a share of his “load,” and denied, with an evident eye to a possible breach of promise suit, that he had given her any “bresents.”
‘That Mr. FECHTER speaks English imperfectly is, however, the least of his defects. If he could not speak at all, his audience would have reason for self-congratulation. We might, too, forget that he is an obese, round-shouldered, short-necked, and eminently beery HAMLET, with a tendency to speak through his nose. But how can we overlook his incapacity to express the subtle changes of HAMLET’S ever questioning mind? One of his admirers has recently quoted RUSKIN in his support. Mr. FECHTER gives no heed to RUSKIN’S axiom, that all true are is delicate art. There is no delicacy in his conception of HAMLET. True, he is impulsive and sensitive; but this is due to his physical and not to his mental organization. A HAMLET without delicacy is quite as intolerable a spectacle as a Grande Duchess without decency.
‘What, then, has given him his reputation? The answer is evident: – His yellow wig. NAPOLEON gilded the dome of the Invalides, and the Parisians forgot to murmur at the arbitrary acts of his reign. Mr. FECHTER crowns himself with a golden wig, and the public forgets to murmur at the five acts of his HAMLET.br> ‘In all other respects Mr. FECHTER’S HAMLET is inferior to that of his rival Mr. [George L.] FOX. It is not nearly as funny, and it is much less impressive. Both actors are wrong, however, in not omitting the graveyard scene. To make a burlesque of Death is to unlawfully invade the province of Messrs. BEECHER and FROTHINGHAM.
‘The popularity of Mr. FECHTER is only a new proof of the potency of yellow hair. It is the yellow hair of the British blonde, joined to that kindliness of disposition with which – like a personification of Charity – she “bareth all things,” that makes her a thing of beauty in the eyes of R.G.W., and a joy for as many seasons as her hair will keep its color. It is because Mr. FECHTER decided that the hair presumptive of the Royal Dane must have been yellow, that his name has grown famous in England.
‘The veracious chronicler relates that, on one occasion, Mr. VENUS deprived his literary friend with a wooden leg of that useful appendage. But the act of constructive mayhem did not destroy Mr. WEGG’S literary reputation. Can Mr. FECHTER’S HAMLET endure an analogous test? If he has confidence in himself, let him try it. He has gone to BOSTON for a change of air. When he returns to NEW-YORK, let it be for a change of hair. When he succeeds in drawing full houses to see him play HAMLET with raven curls, we shall believe that he is something more than simply a HAMLET – with a yellow wig. Until then we shall be constrained to class him with other blonde burlesquers.’
(Matador, Punchinello, New York, Saturday, 2 April 1870, p.7)

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Fechter died in America on 5 August 1879.


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