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The Actors Who Are Dying to Play Yorick in Hamlet

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One of the most time-honored theater traditions is also one of the most morbid. Sometimes, when actors or very serious Shakespeare fans take their final bows, they bequeath their skulls to an acting company to be used as the skull of Yorick, the target of Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick" monologue.

Though it's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the tradition began, it likely goes back to at least the early 1800s, when famed Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth reportedly found himself on the receiving end of an unexpected gift. The story goes that Booth once befriended a man he shared a jail cell with, but while Booth was released, his friend was eventually hanged. The man told his jailers that his head should be sent to Booth and used in Hamlet. The Players Club in New York City, which Booth's son Edwin (brother of John Wilkes Booth) once owned, still has the skull said to have belonged to Junius Booth's unfortunate friend. (While it's clear that a real skull passed from Junius Booth to his son and was used in Hamlet, it's difficult to prove the original owner was Booth's cellmate.) The skull now bears the handwritten legend, "And the rest is silence."

Another early documented instance is that of John “Pop” Reed, a stagehand at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. After more than half a century working at the Walnut, Reed had developed a love for the Bard and stated in his will that he wanted to live on as Hamlet’s deceased jester. The Walnut granted his wish, and Reed's remains reside there to this day.

But the most famous Yorick is probably André Tchaikowsky, the Polish composer and pianist. When he died in 1982, the performer added his name to the list of people wanting to act from beyond the grave. A passionate Shakespeare fan who was often moved by Royal Shakespeare Company performances, Tchaikowsky willed his dome to the company. They stuck it on a roof for two years to dry and bleach it, then began using it in rehearsals. Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) rehearsed with it, but the RSC eventually felt the skull was inappropriate to use in an actual performance; a cast was used instead.

Don't worry: Tchaikowsky’s mortal remains did get their moment in the spotlight. In 2008, actor David Tennant held the composer’s skull aloft in his 22 performances as Hamlet at the Courtyard Theatre in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Though it was originally reported that a fake was used, director Gregory Doran later explained that he didn’t want the skull’s story to become the focus of the production, and so had fibbed a little.

Sadly, not all those who ask are able to serve as Yorick. Comedian Del Close left his noggin to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre when he died in 1999, but his widow was unable to find anyone willing to clean it, and Close’s wish went unanswered. In 1995, an actor who dreamed of performing onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company—yet who had been repeatedly rejected—figured he would audition from the afterlife by bequeathing his skull to the company. He told The Independent, "I may not know what my next job will be, but I want to ensure I know what my last job will be." Alas, the RSC declined him once again.

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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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