Of especial interest to students of the theatre and certainly to actors is a Naxos collection of <Great Historical Shakespeare Recordings and a Miscellany> (NA 220012) on two CDs or tapes.
The first one gives us the voices of such Shakespearean luminaries as Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Arthur Bourchier, Lewis Waller, Frank Benson, Johnston Forbes Robertson, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Henry Irving, Edwin Booth, and Ellen Terry. The last three are preserved on cylinders and the Booth one is scarcely audible. All of these readings are in the grand style, and it is instructive to compare the "Once more unto the breach" of Waller and Benson with that of Olivier. Terry's youthful delivery belies her age, but too many of the readers came to the recording session far past their prime. Still, this is living history and utterly fascinating as such.
The "Miscellany" is a mixed bag indeed. We have pairs of actors such as Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in "Private Lives," Fred Terry and Julia Neilson in a poorly chosen scene from "The Scarlet Pimpernel," John Gielgud and Edith Evans in the marvelous handbag scene from "The Importance of Being Earnest," and even Laurel and Hardy recording in London. (Strange bedfellows indeed.)
Solo "turns" are performed by Tree as Svengali, Bransby Williams imitating Irving in "The Bells" and several (then) notable theatre personalities in his monologue "The Stage Doorkeeper," Henry Ainley reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and Charles Laughton reading (of all things) The Gettysburg Address (from the film "Ruggles of Red Gap").
The last foreign-language selections will not be of great interest to many listeners and of immense interest to students of European acting styles. We have Sarah Bernhardt reading "Phedre," Jean Mournet-Sully as Oedipus (in French), Constant Coquelin, the original Cyrano, racing through the Ballade of the Duel, Feodor Chaliapin reading a poem in a language I cannot identify, and Alexander Moissi doing excellent readings from "Faust" and the "Erlkoenig."
The notes are brief but informative and were written by David Timson, whose "History of Theatre" is also available on Naxos and reviewed on its appropriate web site.