Hamlet: A Love Story

Hamlet is not a romance. Nor is it a comedy. Its very structure defies the Shakespearian definition of one; as the deranged Dane cries to a bewildered Ophelia, “We will have no more marriages!” It ends, instead, in many deaths, fulfilling the requirements for a tragedy and leaving only poor Horatio behind to tell the tale of murderous uncles and ghostly requests. 

The true implications of the tragedy of the work was likely unknown to a young E. Martin Browne when he first memorized the text—by accident—at the age of 11. In 1904, at the same tender age as that of the infant century, Martin lost his father and cousin at sea while they were en route to the family estate in Australia. Though a piece of the SS Waratah was recovered off the coast of South Africa some years later, the Colonel and his niece were never heard from again.  Perhaps Martin found a sort of solace in the words and action of Hamlet, who, at the core of his madness, is a son in bereavement. As he absorbed the words in the grand house he lived in with his mother, on the Fifeheadhouse estate in Gillingham, a girl named Henzie Raeburn, also born in 1900, observed the bronze Art Nouveau ashtrays in her parent’s Hampstead home. It was her duty to dust them each Saturday morning. One was gold, and featured a gilded naked woman, kneeling mythologically upon a leaf. The other, Henzie recalled towards the end of her life, also depicted an undressed lady, clad only in “Ophelia-like draperies swooning or drowning on a wave crest.” 

Henzie and Martin, each unaware of the other’s parallel birth years and internalization of Shakespearian rhetoric from a young age, separately arrived in the British seaside town of Angmering-On-Sea in the summer of 1923. In 1921, Henzie, now an actress (naturall), had visited Angmering with her sister, where they had delighted the vacationing crowd and the proprietor of their hotel with their renditions of classical recitations. When a summer Shakespeare festival came to the town two years later, the hotelier—one Mr. Hollis—recalled the two young performers who had “brought the house down,” as Henzie remembered of their first visit, with their dramatic speech. Henzie, out of work in London for the season (as is the life of an actor, more often than not), happily accepted Hollis’ proposal to share her portrayals of Lady Macbeth and Katherine of Aragon for the summer crowds. 

It was only after lunch with friends on a Saturday afternoon that she happened upon a photo call for a production of Hamlet included in the festival. “A slim, darting young man in an orange cotton tunic was directing operations,” recalled Henzie. “He seemed to know just what he wanted.” The beginning director’s sense of confidence was both attractive and repulsive to the seasoned actress, who had enjoyed a relatively successful career for someone so young. “Amateurs daring to present Shakespeare! Had I not already worked at Stratford?” exclaimed Henzie, many decades later, of her recollections of her first encounter with Martin, who was freshly graduated from Oxford with degrees in theater and theological studies. Yet her attraction to the boldness of the man in orange was such that she found herself shaking his hand, and noting that she would be willing to help out on the production in anyway she could—an offer that anyone working in the theater industry, professional or otherwise, knows to be the kiss of death, particularly when on holiday. And, in a way, for Henzie, it soon was: By Tuesday, the 12-year-old actress set to play Ophelia had fallen ill with a fever. Martin, remembering her promise, asked her if she knew the part. “No. Would I learn it, and play Thursday night? Please!” Henzie stayed up all night on Wednesday memorizing her lines, rehearsed with Martin and the rest of the company on Thursday morning, and found herself performing the part Thursday evening. 

While the rest of the company likely breathed a sigh of relief that the lady doth protest at all, Henzie found herself falling in love with the newly formed words in her mouth—and the actor she spoke them to. During the “Mad Scene,” Ophelia turns to Horatio, and offers him a flower: “Here’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered when my father died.” Nearly sixty years later, Henzie recalled that moment as the one in which she knew of the relationship to come. “Is this part of the mystery of acting?” she wrote, “or is it that ‘at the first sight/They have changed eyes’?” As Ophelia deteriorated and drowned each night, Henzie and Horatio grew more and more intrigued with the other. When the festival ended at the end of the summer, and with it the production, they continued to exchange letters—Henzie’s sent from her parent’s home in London, and Martin from his first postgraduate job in York. On November 14, Martin proposed that they call each other by their “Christian names”; on November 26, Henzie accepted the offer by signing hers in reply. By Christmas, they had spoken these names aloud; by the spring, they met to discuss the following season’s productions, which they were to co-direct, of Richard III and The Tempest; by the next Christmas, they were married. 

The service took place at 9:30 a.m. on a blustery Saturday morning so that bride and groom could catch a noon train to another seaside town, St. Ives, for their honeymoon. “My mother had offered me a trip round the world if I would not marry Henzie,” recalled Martin, but marry they did, with mostly their young theater friends, ripped out of bed at what is an ungodly time for an industry where work is concentrated in the later hours, as their witnesses. The bride and groom nearly missed their train due to the best man’s insistence that he be dropped off at his dentist appointment on the way to the station; but the train happened to be running one minute late, and they set forth on their new lives together. 

For the next few years, the couple lived simply in Doncaster, where they worked in community theater, often bringing their productions to neighboring villages. Life—the annoying reality that cannot be manipulated with colorful costumes and lights on an elevated stage—soon brought its own tragedies and joys. Henzie received notice one Friday night that her father was not well, and he passed away the next afternoon; that same year, a fainting spell revealed that she had been living with a hole in her heart since birth, and would carry it with her until her death in 1973. A son, Denis, was born on the 12th of August, 1926. That year, jobs were hard to come by, particularly in the arts, and Martin was fortunate to find employment by the newly created British Drama League, for which he became a judge of amateur dramas around England and Scotland. In these travels, Hamlet recurred “over and over again in my theatre-going memory,” noted Martin, who, in his brief stints as an actor, played Voltimand in the Old Vic’s annual matinee of the entire “uncut” text. 

Though the job market of theater is notoriously fickle, and its network even more so, when the proper opportunities arise, it tends to take care of its own. At the advice of the eminent Elsie Fogerty, founder of the Central School of Speech and Drama, a “B. Iden Payne” contacted Martin from across the pond at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, offering him a job as assistant professor of drama; Henzie would direct productions with the students. Neither Martin nor Henzie had ever formally taught drama, nor had they been to America. All of their friends, families, and everything they knew existed in England. They had a baby. So, of course, they accepted the offer and set sail for Pennsylvania. 

Both pious Anglicans, Martin and Henzie specialized in religious drama, a genre that had been seeing a surge in amateur dramatic circles following the first World War. Religious themes—in particular, the representation of Jesus on the stage— had been systematically censored by the Lord Chamberlain since the nation’s (arguably dramatic) shift away from Catholicism in the 16th century. However, amateur productions, notably ones performed in ecclesiastical venues, were not subjected to the same laws, and York and Mystery Cycle plays thrived in off-West End community troupes. (It would not be until 1968 that theatrical censorship laws would be formally struck down; it is no surprise, then, that 1971 and 1972, respectively, saw Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar on West End stages.) Martin naturally brought their area of expertise to the students of “Tech,” as the Institute was fondly called in the years in which it focused largely on science. After three years, Martin received another life-changing call: Would he be interested in becoming the first director of drama at Canterbury Cathedral? The family had just agreed to more years in Pittsburgh; they had come accustomed to American life, and the deplorable vernacular that Martin was slowly correcting in his speech lessons with aspiring actors. They had a new baby, Christopher, born in 1929. So, of course, they accepted the offer, and set sail back to England. 

After just a few months back in their home nation, it became clear that Henzie and Martin had returned not just for a career shift--Martin was finally at the helm of original religious dramas, rather than coaching American students through diction exercises--but to welcome a new member into their family. At a dinner party some years earlier, Martin had met a young poet who gave a reluctant but chilling reading of his new poem. The poet had recently, “found his haven, after a stormy journey,” in the Church of England, Martin recalled. When Martin began a collaboration in 1933 to create a pageant play to fund the building of 45 new churches in the rapidly expanding suburbs, he asked the poet if he would be interested in penning the scenes, and he accepted. When the pageant was so well received that the poet was offered, by Martin’s employer, the Bishop of Chichester, to create a new play for the Canterbury Cathedral Festival of 1935, the poet accepted only under the condition that Martin would direct the production; it was soon after determined that Henzie would lead the female chorus. Before long, Tom (as the couple fondly knew the reticent man whose writings had finally brought him to the forefront of international literary circles with the 1927 publishing of The Waste Land) was a regular at their dinner table. He spent a weekend with the family while working out the plot for the Canterbury play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, tentatively entitled Fear In The Way, drawn on Tom’s love of murder mysteries and the Sherlock Holmes novels. Martin found it to be too sensationalist; Henzie suggested Murder in the Cathedral. The name stuck. 

Martin and Tom continued to collaborate on Tom’s new texts, with Henzie often performing in iterations of them around the country. On March 21, 1939, Tom’s next play, The Family Reunion, opened on the West End in 1939; spirits were high, despite and perhaps, in spite of, the fact that Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia six days earlier. But when Great Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, even the most ardent of dramatists could not deny that theater was the best way to expend time, effort, and resources. Productions were halted as bomb shelters were constructed. Tom volunteered as a fire-watcher, and spent his evenings peering across London from a rooftop searching for flaming remnants of raids. Martin and Henzie looked into securing positions back in the States, potentially at the Yale School of Drama. In the course of such discussions, a friend off-handedly suggested that in light of the closed theaters, the couple take their religious dramas around the country they way they had historically been performed: by wagon. Though Henzie and Martin laughed at the notion, ideas began to form--they had recently inherited 50 pounds from an aunt, and knew of plenty of now-out of work actors who would be interested. 

And thus, the Pilgrim Players were born--a traveling troupe of actors performing plays on a shoestring budget, around England during a time when entertainment was scarce. Christopher and Denis were sent to stay with family friends, while Martin and Henzie journeyed anywhere that needed them. Costumes were borrowed from generous theater and festival stockpiles; performances were done with little to no sets or costumes. Lighting was a perpetual difficulty, due to government-imposed blackouts and the scarcity of petrol. Yet for the duration of the war, the determined troupe played in bomb shelters, schools, and churches to rapt audiences, grateful for a departure from the fear that the palpably potential whirr of raid sirens imposed onto everyday life. The Players charged a nominal fee for each performance, just enough to keep their automobiles and bodies going. Occasionally, a parish or school in distress would request a free performance, though they were always declined. “We had to bring people, who had never thought of a play as food for the spirit, to consciously realize that they must have it, and that, like any food, it must be paid for,” recalled Henzie of their rationale. The hunger for stories was great enough to fuel the Pilgrim Players through the war, until the theaters, and London itself, were open again for business. 

Though the Players typically traveled as a troupe, Henzie and Martin made a journey on their own to Orkney, Scotland, where they performed Hamlet--the play that had first, unwittingly, and then, quite overtly, knitted the strings of their fates together as partners in performance and in life. Of their performance, a reviewer wrote: “You may wonder how two people can stage Hamlet. Martin Browne has adapted the play in this way. He acts the part of Hamlet and his wife plays the eight other characters. They act the essential scenes and Martin Browne explains the rest of the play as they go along. As he himself says: ‘It needs a bit of imagination on the part of the audience,’ but not so much as you think because the Brownes are first class actors and Shakespeare does the rest.’” Certainly, there is no doubt that the speech of the Bard is what carried the spare production to success; but it is not unlikely that their inherent connection to the play as a pair is what made the drama, though not as religious as per their usual genre, divine in its own, private way. 

When the war ended, Henzie and Martin returned to their city lives, and resumed making theater on proscenium stages. Martin continued to collaborate with Tom, for a total of seven productions, until the quiet poet died in 1965; Martin dedicated much of his later years to chronically their collaborative projects in books, articles, and speeches. Henzie continued to work prolifically on British stages as well as in film, and continued to often play the lead role in the chorus of Murder in the Cathedral that she had originated in 1935. In the 1970s, the couple took turns writing chapters of their lives together, chronicled, culminating in the joint autobiography Two In One. The inscription of the book reads:

 

For by your leaves, you shall not stay alone

Till holy Church incorporate two in one.

Romeo and Juliet, II, vi

 

Like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is not a comedy. It is romantic--one as classical as they come--but it is a tragedy; the young lovers die of want for the other. There is something tragic about the language lending itself to the title of a memoir, penned by two aging lovers, one of whom would die before the other. And yet, it is fitting: Though they were entwined by Shakespearian text before they even met, they spent a lifetime turning tragedy into romance--Ophelia was never supposed to fall in love with Horatio--and romance into madness--what sane mother and father, husband and wife, professional actress and director would attempt Hamlet with only two actors and an incredulous audience? Only one who had total and complete confidence that the text was in their hands.

Henzie died in 1973, eight years before Martin. Dutifully, he finished the book, and it was published one year after his death in 1980. Horatio, it seems, completed his duty to spread the story.