Vanity Fair, June 1915
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO HAMLET
The Bacon-Shakespeare Controversy Settled at Last
By Pelham Grenville
THE Baconians say that Shakespeare could not have written the Shakespeare plays because he had not the education.
Mr. Arnold Daly in a recent number of Vanity Fair said that Bacon could not have written them because he had not the stagecraft.
It is just as well to get this controversy settled and remove a powerful temptation from the paths of young authors, so here is my theory, which not only gives a satisfactory answer to every difficulty but bears also—to anyone with any knowledge of the mechanism of the theatre: that is to say, a knowledge of what happens before a play is produced on the stage—the obvious stamp of truth.
Bacon, it will be remembered by historical students, was a man of considerable gifts, best known to the reading public of his day as the author of two bright little works entitled respectively “The Novum Organum” and “De Interpretatione Naturae” etc., etc.
Like everybody else since Adam, he had the firm conviction that he could write a corking play.
There never has been anyone who did not think that he could write a play and there never will be anyone.
SO Bacon, in the intervals of Chancellor-of-the-Exchequering, sat down, got out the old quill pen, and dashed off a tragedy. Titles were not his forte, so, instead of calling it “The Girl from Elsinore," the best he could do was “Hamlet."
“A hanged good bit of work, by my halidom,” he said to Lady Bacon. “This will be a hit.”
And he began sending it round to the managers.
The first manager kept it six months, and, when Bacon wrote enquiring about it, sent him back a farcical comedy by some other gentleman, regretting that it was not in his power, much as he admired it, to produce the same.
Bacon sighed, and sent another copy to another manager.
When a year had elapsed, he wrote, apologizing for seeming in any way to be trying to rush the manager, but asking if any decision on his drama “Hamlet” had been arrived at. A few days later he received by the same mail his manuscript and a letter from the manager’s secretary saying there was evidently some mistake, for no such manuscript had ever been received in the office.
BY this time Bacon had begun to realize, as so many others have realized since, that things theatrical are inseparable from a sort of brisk delirium usually associated only with the interiors of homes for the insane.
He had just resolved to give the thing up, when, quite unexpectedly, a manager wrote asking him to call.
After waiting three and a half hours in the ante-room, with a crowd of blue-chinned persons who told each other how “At John-o’-Groats a year agone come the feast of St. Paul, I jumped right in and saved ye show” and “By St. George of England I was a riot at Bootle,”—he was shown in to the manager’s private office.
“Now this what’s-its-name, this ‘Hamlet’ of yours,” said the manager. “It looks pretty good to me, by St. James of Compostella. I kind of like it. It’s got the punch.”
Bacon murmured his gratification.
“Of course,” added the manager, “it’ll have to be fixed.”
“Sure. Couldn’t put it on as it stands. The public wouldn’t look at it. You’re new at this game, I suppose!”
BACON muttered something about having done a bit of writing.
“Oh, shucks,” said the manager, “I know all about that. I know a fellow whose cousin read a piece by you, the Novum something. But writing plays is quite different. No essayist ever wrote a good play. It’s a rule in the theatre that the better the stuff a man writes in any other line, the worse he is at writing plays. No, we’ll get this thing of yours fixed. I know a lad who’ll do it. Shakespeare’s his name. He’s in my company. He’ll put some ginger in it. Now about terms. You get one per cent of the gross.”
Bacon, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer was pretty good at figures, protested that one per cent of the gross was not much.
“Forget it,” said the manager. “Why, you might make a pile out of one per cent. Columbus discovered America so you’ll have the American money as well, and so on. Sign here.”
A shrewd man, Bacon realised at once that there was nothing else for him to do.
THE superstition current in theatrical circles that there was a kind of magic in playwriting, and that nobody could fathom the mysteries of the craft unless he was one of the small coterie who spent their time in the Mermaid Tavern buying sack for managers, was too strong for him.
He knew his “Hamlet” was good, but he also knew that he would never get it produced unless he consented to hand it over to the men who had been “twenty years in the business, and knew it all,” to do what they liked with it. So he signed the contract, and the manager sent round to the Mermaid for Shakespeare.
Shakespeare read the manuscript, then and there.
“The finish is weak,” he said. “No pep. What you want to do is to have the whole bunch jump on each other and everybody kill everybody else. I’ll fix it.”
“But surely,” said Bacon, “isn’t that all a little improbable?”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s improbable,” said Shakespeare, coldly. “It’s what the public wants. It’s good stuff. Now, you make Hamlet loony. That won’t do. Do you think matinée girls are going to worship a nut?”
“But it’s in the character. His sufferings drove him mad.”
“BACK to the egg, you’re not hatched yet. Check his sufferings with your hat. What he’s going to do is to pretend he’s crazy, see? Everybody’s fooled but the audience. Gives a chance for comedy, too. Make the girl loony, if you like. I’ll write in a scene where he joshes those two college friends of his. Now what about this ‘To be or not to be’ speech? The public don’t like soliloquies. I guess I’ll cut that. No, I guess it’ll have to stand. It gives the stage-hands a chance to set the scene back of the front-cloth. But if it’s to stay in, it wants to be longer. I’ll write in a line or two. How’s this for a line: ‘Or to take arms against a sea of troubles’?”
“BUT you can’t take arms against a sea. It’s a mixed metaphor.”
“Never mind, it’s a good acting line. In it goes. Well, there we are for a start. I’ll take the script off to the Mermaid and be thinking up some other improvements.”
Bacon went home and tied a vinegar-soaked kerchief round his forehead.
He did not attend the opening of “Hamlet” or any subsequent performance.
That, I think, is undoubtedly the solution of the controversy which has caused so much good ink to be spilled and so many homes to be broken up.
We know what theatrical managers are to-day, and we know what they were like in old Greece, for it is on record that even Aristophanes only succeeded in getting his first play produced by allowing a since forgotten, but then established, dramatist to put his name to it.
Is it likely that conditions were any different in the days of Elizabeth? We trow not, by our halidom, and by other of our personal possessions.
NOTHING is more likely than that Bacon should write a play, and nothing is less likely than that the managers of his day should permit it to see the footlights unfixed by the twenty-years-in-the-business brigade.
One does not wish to think hardly of Shakespeare, so we may assume that he did offer to have the bills read as follows:
and Francis Bacon
but Bacon, after attending one or two rehearsals, absolutely refused to have his name connected in any way with the production.
It has always been a mystery to critics why the author of these plays, capable as he was of the most exalted writing, should have inserted lines and scenes in them so far below his best standard.
OBVIOUSLY they were the good acting lines and the “corking bits” which Shakespeare added in the process of “fixing.”
One of these days a body of scholars will unearth a cryptogram or something containing Bacon’s frank opinion of theatrical circles.
If they do, it will probably be indelibly written on asbestos paper.
Note: together with “All About Shakespeare” from April 1916, incorporated into “An Outline of Shakespeare” in Louder and Funnier (1932)