The Fenice is, I suppose, the most romantic theatre in the world, for the simple reason that the audience, at any rate those who occupy the boxes, all arrive in boats. Before it is a basin for the convenience of navigation, but even with that the confusion on a gala night must be excessive, and a vast space of time must divide the first comers from the last, if the last are to be punctual. And when one translates our own difficulties over cars and cabs at the end of a performance into the terms of gondolas and canals, one can imagine how long it must be before the theatre is emptied.
The Fenice is also remarkable among the world’s theatres for its size, holding, as it does, three thousand persons. It is peculiar furthermore in being open only for a few weeks in the spring.
I have not been to the Fenice, but I once attended a performance of Amleto by “G. Shakespeare” in the Goldoni. It is the gayest of theatres, and the most intimate, for all save the floor and a trifling space under the flat ceiling is boxes; one hundred and twenty-three little ones and eight big ones, each packed with Venetians who really do enjoy a play while it is in progress, and really do enjoy every minute of the interval while it is not. When the lights are up they eat and chatter and scrutinize the other boxes; when the lights are down they follow the drama breathlessly and hiss if any one dares to whisper a word to a neighbour.
As for the melancholy Prince of Danimarca, he was not my conception of the part, but he was certainly the Venetians’. Either from a national love of rhetoric, or a personal fancy of the chief actor for the centre of the stage, or from economical reasons, the version of “G. Shakespeare’s” meritorious tragedy which was placed before us was almost wholly monologue. Thinking about it now, I can scarcely recall any action on the part of the few other characters, whereas Amleto’s millions of rapid words still rain uncomprehended on my ears, and I still see his myriad grimaces and gestures. It was like Hamlet very unintelligently arranged for a very noisy cinema, and watching it I was conscious of what a vast improvement might be effected in many plays if the cinema producer as well as the author attended the rehearsals. But to the Venetians this was as impressive and entertaining a Hamlet as could be wished, and four jolly Jack-tars from one of the men-of-war in the lagoon nearly fell out of their private box in their delight, and after each of the six atti Amleto was called several times through the little door in the curtain. Nor did he fail to respond.
About the staging of the play there was a right Shakespearian parsimony. If all the scenery and costumes cost twenty-five pounds, I am surprised. No attempt was made to invest “lo spettro del padre del Amleto” with supernatural graces. He merely walked on sideways, a burly, very living Italian, and with a nervous quick glance, to see if he was clearing the wing (which he sometimes did not), off again. So far as the Goldoni is concerned, Sir Henry Irving, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir Augustus Harris, and Herr Reinhardt have toiled in vain. Amleto’s principle, “The play’s the thing,” was refined down to “Amleto’s the thing”. Yet no English theatre was ever in better spirits.