“THE GREATEST ACTOR AMERICA HAS PRODUCED.”
September 5, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“The greatest actor America has produced.” That is what the New York Times wrote on December 28, 1871 in the obituary of James Henry Hackett, a man who these 146 years later no longer holds claim to that honor. It’s hard to imagine a modern obit closing with a final sentence like the one for Hackett, exclaiming that “a thrill of sadness will go through the City when the news is told that James Hackett has ceased to be.” This for a member of a profession that, at the time, had actors commonly turned away at many of the finer hotels and eating establishments across the country. So who was James Hackett to deserve this special dispensation? And how did it come to pass that Abraham Lincoln took time from his duties as Commander in Chief during the Civil War to befriend the actor? Herein lies the tale.
James Henry Hackett was born in New York City on March 15, 1800. He was interested in amateur theatrics, which he continued with upon admittance to Columbia College at the young age of fifteen. However, poor health halted his studies when, as his obituary states, “it was brought to an abrupt conclusion by a severe fit of illness.” Upon recovery (and presumably in a less frivolous mood), Hackett took up the study of law and eventually married Miss Catherine Lee Sugg when he was nineteen. Then, abandoning the notion of law as a profession, he entered the wholesale grocery business in Utica, New York, presumably to provide a stable lifestyle for his new bride. The match with Catherine was a good one, and after six years upstate, they moved back to New York City to open a store front in lower Manhattan. Unhappily, it failed, but the move was a happy one for Catherine, as it allowed for a return to her former profession as an actress. Picking up where she had left off, Mrs. Hackett found quick success. One night at her own benefit (performances set up for an actor to supplement his or her incomes), she enlisted her husband to join her on stage. A born mimic, Hackett took to impersonating noteworthy actors of the day and found himself with an offer immediately following to play opposite one of them as the twin Dromio in Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. A critic at the time marveled how “he so perfectly mimicked both in voice, walk and gesture that the audience was completely mystified.”
He next went to England. Though he had only been acting a few months, it didn’t prevent him from having the chutzpah to make an ill-conceived and roundly excoriated appearance as a guest-star at Covent Garden on April 5, 1827. Undaunted, Hackett continued on his upward trajectory in America, never giving up hope to one day get his proper due in the land of Shakespeare’s birth. Upon his return in 1832, in spite of the suspicions with which the British judged Americans performing Shakespeare, Hackett won over critics and audiences alike with his Falstaff, meeting with even greater acclaim than it had in America. “His Sir John Falstaff is all his own,” wrote one leading critic of the day. “Another actor of reputation would be insane to afford the opportunity for comparison by attempting it.” Hackett’s obit mentions how he “made a study of fat men, and gave on the stage their waddling gait so perfectly that few men could be brought to believe that he owed his portly appearance to quilted garments and folds of padding.”
Prior to bringing his Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor to Washington, D.C., Hackett sent Abraham Lincoln (a devout devotee of the Bard) a copy of his book, Notes and Comment Upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare. It impressed Lincoln, and when he wrote Hackett a letter of thanks, it included some of his thoughts on various plays. When Hackett submitted the letter to the press hoping for some favorable publicity, it backfired when many took the President to task for having the temerity to criticize Shakespeare. The letters back and forth between Hackett and Lincoln are very entertaining, especially when Lincoln tells Hackett: “I felt assured that, as a man of the world now and an experienced politician, you were not likely to think me so thin skinned, and that in my humble opinion such political squibs would probably affect this sensibility about as much as would a charge of mustard seed shot at 40 yards distance, fired through a pop gun barrel at the naturally armed alligator, touch his nerves — Pray excuse the illustration!”
On December 13, 1863, Lincoln had Hackett to the White House. The conversation was detailed in the diary of John Hay, the President’s private secretary (the reference to “the Tycoon,” was Hay’s code name for Lincoln).
“The conversation at first took a professional turn, the Tycoon showing a very intimate knowledge of those plays of Shakespeare where Falstaff figures. He was particularly anxious to know why one of the best scenes in the play, that where Falstaff and Prince Hal alternately assume the character of the king, is omitted in the representation.”
In 1871, shortly before his death, Hackett wrote to Robert Lincoln, the President’s sole surviving son, asking for permission to access some personal material in the Lincoln archives. In his reply, Robert wrote: “Although it may be no news to you, I cannot refrain from expressing to you how often I have heard my father speak of the great pleasure he used to derive from your visits to Washington and your discussions with him … In reading he would often quote you and not infrequently fight over again the battles of the poet and the acting editions.”
Though Hackett may be forgotten, I am glad to have been introduced to him by way of his New York Times obituary, first sent to me by my friend, Peter Riegert. He came upon Hackett not by way of knowing who he was as a member of their shared profession, but by a visit to the Prospect Cemetery in Queens. Riegert was so taken by how vast it was, and by how neglected and dilapidated it had become over the years, that it is now (in his words) “its own graveyard.” When he hit upon the idea for a potential documentary on its history, he came upon Hackett’s being buried there and forwarded me the obit, which I must confess to having read numerous times. Here is a link to it, in hopes you too will be as fascinated by the life of James Henry Hackett as I am.
The death of Mr. JAMES H. HACKETT, the celebrated actor, is announced. The event occurred at 4 o' clock yesterday…query.nytimes.com
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.