Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Puffe and Co., or Hamlet, Prince of Dry Goods (c. 1900)

John Wilson Bengough

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J.W. Bengough
John Wilson Bengough

While any serious follower of Canadian political history would probably recognize the name of J.W. Bengough (or L. Côté or Jimuel Briggs or Barnaby Rudge, or any of the other pseudonyms under which he published), even the most ardent fans of Bengough’s satirical cartoons might understandably be surprised to find him in an anthology devoted to Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare. Certainly, John Wilson Bengough’s (1851-1923) claim to fame lies at the intersection of politics and laughter, as one of the first career cartoonists in the history of journalism. (For more biographical information on John Wilson Bengough, see the biographical essay by his brother Thomas published as the next entry in the online anthology.)

The high public profile of Bengough’s published cartoons, however, has largely overshadowed an almost equally prolific literary output—lectures, articles, poems, and several scripts. While some of these works have also been published, there is no indication that this opera, Puffe & Co., or Hamlet, Prince of Dry Goods, has ever been seen beyond the blue covers of the Mammoth Exercise Book where J.W. penned it in his careful hand.

Unfortunately, the original manuscript is undated, making it difficult to place it with complete certainty. It is most likely a product of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, within which context it was no doubt a rollicking satire on an array of au courant characters and issues.

The late nineteenth century saw the rise of a new retail phenomenon, the dry goods store, which made millionaires out of men like Timothy Eaton and Robert Simpson. Concurrent with this retail trend was the emergence of a new ancillary industry: the dark art of credit rating, which purported to assess merchants quantifiably and inform creditors of the risk involved in lending to a particular individual or concern. This move to a new economic and commodity base no doubt made a huge impact on the buying public, making the entire sector—and the moguls who controlled it—likely targets for the satirist’s pen. Unfortunately, as a satire, Puffe & Co. falls prey to the predominant difficulties of the genre: a century later, the context has lost its currency, and the satire has lost much of its bite, leaving the reader with a broadly humorous cast of prancing and declaiming dry goods clerks and marriageable women.

While the opera derives its name from Hamlet, the plot owes just as much to Othello, with the insatiable jealousy of the Floor Walker, De Vinton, a man thwarted in both ambition and love by Alan Dale, an independently wealthy gentleman who clerks in the dry goods store for fun. It is De Vinton’s revenge plot, which he manipulates with Iago’s best villainy, that threatens to bring about the demise of the Puffe & Co. dry goods empire. Othello meets Hamlet when Antonio Puffe, son and heir to the empire, almost assures the bankruptcy by letting his delusions of Hamlet seep beyond the boundaries of the company production and into “real life.” Casting himself as Hamlet, Antonio refuses to let his father, Prometheus, marry his aunt Hecuba (Prometheus’s dead wife’s sister), even if it would save their retail business (and Prometheus and Hecuba are, coincidentally, quite in love). Allusions abound, lines are quoted (and misquoted), but this is a comedy, so somehow all must end with romantic couples happily paired. Unfortunately, Bengough achieves the ending in such a disappointingly trite and forced manner that the play ultimately betrays itself and its sources.

No copy of the score for this opera has yet been located, and Bengough himself declared the music “on the whole too heavy” and indicates he never accepted it from composer Clarence Lucas (see title page). Another comic opera, Hecuba; or Hamlet’s Father’s Deceased Wife’s Sister, was apparently registered for US copyright in 1885 by publisher F.F. Siddall, but no copies of that script or score have ever been found. Given the centrality of the Hecuba-Prometheus love plot in Puffe & Co., it is possible to speculate that these may, in fact, be the same work, with the change in title corresponding to a change in composer (Hecuba’s composer is listed as G. Barton Brown). Until any evidence comes to light about this second play, such speculations are at least as reliable as Dun Wiman’s credit ratings.

Dorothy Hadfield

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