‘Tis the season for theatrical performances, and almost nothing has become more synonymous with this time of year than the Nutcracker. Yet despite the Nutcracker’s popularity, there have been numerous other showcases in Hartford over the years, which may not be as popular, but still maintain a place in history.
At the Hartford Ballet (formed in 1971), performances have included Carmina Burana, Dracula, Ballet West, Alvin Ailey, The Eyes that Gently Touch, and Coppelia, which portrays a bride-to-be (Swanilda) that wins over her beloved (Franz) against a rival mechanical doll. Actors Roland Roux and Jeanne Tears Giroir characterized Coppelius (the doll maker) and Coppelia (the mechanical doll), having swept the audiences off their feet as Roux “oiled his way across the floor”. His adoration for Coppelia was “grotesque but, interestingly, quite poignant”. The ballet was first choreographed in 1870, and was based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sand-Man”, a gruesome story of “obsessive love”. Originally oriented to be fanciful and bubbly, the ballet was first performed in the Paris Opera before the Franco-Prussian War, in the style of “French Romantic”. Many years later, when Hartford Stage artistic director Micheal Uthoff took a hold of the ballet, he aimed for a more dramatic and almost diabolical version of Coppelia which he once remarked as having a “Frankenstein quality”.
Parsons’ Theatre’s production of Prince Nit was performed by an all-male student cast in 1897, and was considered a “novelty in local theatricals”. The comic opera in three acts caused a stir that same year, when D. Parsons Goodrich sued Trinity College students for $200 worth of choral training services for the production. Part of the ruling resulted in a non-suit, in which it was argued that the students were non-residents, and therefore could not be accused. The story features two “tramps” from the United States, who portray themselves to the King as wise magicians in Mexico, and intertwines the characters known as Prince Nit, Betty Sweet, and a spinster named Miss Hope.
Actor and playwright William Gillette (1853-1937) of Hartford was known best for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, which was first shown at Parsons’ as early as 1900. In reviews, Gillette’s performance of the iconic fictional character was seen as that of a “strong man of dramatic instincts and possibilities”.
Gillette’s war drama, Secret Service, contained a rapid plot regarding a hero spy who falls in love with a Richmond girl. It is considered the best play that Gillette has ever written, and contained characters that were “human and interesting”.
These selections are a few of the plays showcased in the Capital City, and shed light on some of its theatrical history. A selection of photographs, playbills, advertisements, scrapbooks, and published histories can be accessed at Connecticut History Online, HistoryCat, and in the Waterman Research Center.
Sierra Dixon is a Research & Collections Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society