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Early Twentieth-Century Shakespeare

Sothern and Marlowe

By the early twentieth century, Shakespeare had fallen out of popularity in the United States, in part because of a perception that Shakespeare was the province of a refined, wealthy, and educated audience, and in part because producers had trouble placing his plays in a modern aesthetic. World War I also contributed to the decline. Lack of demand for Shakespearean performance meant that a handful of actors was able to fill the small commercial niche for productions. Julia Marlowe (1866-1950) and E. H. Sothern (1859-1933) toured North America from 1904 through 1924 with a Shakespearean repertory, and became the major Shakespearean actors in the United States in the early twentieth century. Their production of Romeo and Juliet was seen across the country and became the prevailing rendition of the play for a generation.

Sothern-Marlowe production. Romeo and Juliet. Promptbook

Pictured above is one of many promptbooks belonging to the Marlowe/Sothern Romeo and Juliet and is a clean, unmarked record of their production. Marlowe exercised creative control over the production and on this page you can see her careful staging of the opening fight between the Montagues and Capulets. If the stage directions had not been typed in red, the dialogue would be difficult to locate.


Julia Marlowe was physically beautiful and had a lovely rich contralto voice that suited her Shakespearean performances. However, Marlowe was caught in a transitional phase. She was innovative in relation to her predecessors, but never fully embraced the realistic acting principles that audiences expected by the 1920s.


By the time Marlowe and Sothern retired in 1924, the modernist movement had embraced Shakespeare, and productions were again in wide demand.


Next: Modern Movements in Shakespeare

Photograph of Julia Marlowe. Photograph, late 19th or early 20th century

McGarry. Stage-lighting guide for Sothern and Marlowe productions. Manuscript, 19th or 20th century 

Hall's Studio. Sothern and Marlowe as Romeo and Juliet. Photograph, 1904

Hall's Studio. Sothern and Marlowe as Romeo and Juliet. Photograph, 1904

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