The Diaries of Harry Watkins

TCS 18

Harry Watkins (1825-1894) was an actor and playwright who had long, if rather mediocre, career in the American theater. Indeed, his most notable legacy was neither a performance or a play, but a series of lively diaries he kept from 1845 to 1860 that offer a window into the mid-nineteenth century entertainment business. After Watkins passed, the thirteen volumes of diaries were kept by his daughter for a number of years, but when she fell are hard times, they were given to Maud Durbin Skinner. Her husband Otis Skinner was a celebrated actor and their daughter Cornelia Otis Skinner was a popular actress and author. Maud and Otis subsequently edited and published an abridged edition of the diaries as One Man in His Time (1938).

At length the Skinner Family papers, including Watkins’ journals, were given to the Harvard Theatre Collection. In 2012, Amy E. Hughes and Naomi Stubbs initiated a project to digitize, transcribe, and publish all 1200 pages of the diaries.

MS Thr 857

The digital images of the full run of the diaries can be found here, but a more useful (and word searchable!) full digital edition and one-volume print edition should be available by the end of the next year. In the meantime, the project is running a delightful Twitter feed as Harry Watkins, offering up daily excerpts from his diary exactly 171 years after he wrote it. Some of our favorites thus far:

Hamlet’s Ghost

Hamlet's Ghost Flyer

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of the dead King of Denmark appears to his son, setting off a chain of events that culminates in the play’s notoriously bloody finale. But how would this mysterious figure have been understood in Shakespeare’s world? Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s new HarvardX course, Hamlet’s Ghost, takes learners through an exploration of the Ghost’s uncanny theatrical power and the historical contexts from which it emerged.

The online course is free and open to all, requiring only a short registration process. A prompt at the start of the course asks users to introduce themselves by giving their name, location, and a short statement about why they are interested in the class. The responses thus far paint a fascinating picture of the global community that digital projects like this can help foster.

Part I of the course leads off with a look at Shakespeare’s source material and a discussion of the way directors have staged the appearance of the ghost in Act I of the play. This dramatic print depicts Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore.

TS 680.12.1, Houghton Library

The print was engraved by Robert Thew after a painting by Henry Fussell at the behest of John Boydell, an enterprising British publisher who promoted a Shakespeare-inspired revival of the visual arts in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his efforts was the publication in 1803 of a two-volume “elephant” folio of Shakespearean prints created by some of the era’s foremost artists. But we digress. Although we are only just working through Part I, the course is both educational and entertaining. One exercise asks you to imagine how you might direct and stage the ghost for a production of the play. If any other students are in need of ideas, the Harvard Theatre Collection is a great place to look!