Shakespeare and Cincinnati’s Dramatic Festival

By: Sydney M. Vollmer, ARB Intern

In the spring of 1883, Cincinnati held its first Dramatic Festival at Music Hall, performing for a consecutive six days.  The show had a lineup of performances of all sorts of dramatic works, with many of them holding Shakespearian titles.   The festival was such a big deal that even the Chicago Tribune sent someone over to see what it was all about but unfortunately, the Tribune was less than impressed with Cincinnati’s efforts, claiming that the largeness of Music Hall drowned out the performances of almost all the actors.  However, the critics did have some kind words for the orchestra as well as the performances of Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Apparently, these were the only two plays that were “great” enough to be worthy of performance while simultaneously using the space effectively. It certainly helped that in the role of Hamlet was the famous thespian James E. Murdoch.

Dramatic Festival

James MurdochBorn in Philadelphia in 1811, Murdoch began a career as a bookbinder but he quickly went from the bound book to bounding onto the stage. His first appearance as an actor was at the age of eighteen in Lover’s Vows at the Arch Street Theatre in his native Philadelphia.  In 1840, he became the stage manager at the Chestnut Theatre, also in Philadelphia. Taking a break from theatre the next year, Murdoch began offering instruction on Shakespeare and elocution. His return to drama came in 1845 when he toured several cities in the role of Hamlet.  Even during the Civil War, Murdoch found ways to integrate acting into his life by performing dramatic readings to soldiers when he wasn’t volunteering as a nurse.

Hamlet CastMurdoch eventually settled down in Cincinnati and retired from acting, but re-emerged as an actor later on. By the time Cincinnati’s Dramatic Festival was in the works, Murdoch was 72, and much older than the typical Hamlet.  His performance was highly praised even if the festival itself was panned by the Chicago press!

For anyone interested in reading the exact version Murdoch played, we have an authentic copy of the Hamlet script here in the Archives & Rare Books Library and our holdings additionally include a script from the performance of Julius Caesar. The performances were put on Script of Hamlet during May 4, 1883 and April 30 and May 2, respectively.  Even if you’re not one for theater, the scripts are much like playbills of today: the cast list is in front and the advertisements are in the back.  Pictured are both cast lists, as well as advertisements from Shillito’s Department Store and Procter & Gamble.

To learn more about our Shakespeare materials and other holdings of the Archives & Rare Books Library, please visit us on the web at, particularly our Shakespeare web page,  You can also find us on Facebook at, visit us on the 8th Floor of Blegen Library, email us at, or call us at 513.556.1959.   And if you have any programs or playbills of Cincinnati grade school, middle school, high school, college, community theater, professional theater, or touring productions of Shakespeare, let us know – we’d love to have a photograph of them!

Julius Caesar Script






Ad for ShillitosShakespeare’s Hamlet, as Presented in Music Hall, Cincinnati, at the First Dramatic Festival. Official text.

(Performed May 4, 1883, by James E. Murdoch, Lawrence Barrett, Otis Skinner, Nat Goodwin, and others)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as Presented in Music Hall, Cincinnati, at the First Dramatic Festival. Official text.

(Performed April 30 and May 2, 1883, by James E. Murdoch, Lawrence Barrett, Otis Skinner, Nat Goodwin, and others)

“Browse History.” Judy Duchan’s History of Speech. N.p., 12 May 2011. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Ad for P&G“Prof. David Swing’s Ideas of the Cincinnati Dramatic Festival.” Review of Cincinnati Dramatic Festival. Chicago Tribune 13 Mar. 1883: 18. Print.

James  E.  Murdoch  Papers,  Mss.  667,  Louisiana  and  Lower  Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La. Web. 29 Oct. 2015

The Dramatic Festival at Cincinnati. Digital image. Prints Old & Rare. N.p., 1999. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.