Russian Imperial Ballet at the Opera

Fragile and beautiful odalisques

Source: Arnold Bennett, extract from ‘Russian Imperial Ballet at the Opera’ in Paris Nights, and Other Impressions of Places and People (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 68-78

Production: Mikhail Fokine, Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade, Palais Garnier, Paris, 1910

Text: I looked over the crimson plush edge of the box down into Egypt, where Cleopatra was indulging her desires; into a civilisation so gorgeous, primitive, and far-off that when compared to it the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries seemed as like as two peas in their sophistication and sobriety. Cleopatra had set eyes on a youth, and a whim for him had taken her. By no matter what atrocious exercise of power and infliction of suffering, that whim had to be satisfied on the instant. It was satisfied. And a swift homicide left the Queen untrammelled by any sentimental consequences. The whole affair was finished in a moment, and the curtain falling on all that violent and gorgeous scene. In a moment this Oriental episode, interpreted by semi-Oriental artists, had made all the daring prurient suggestiveness of French comedy seem timid and foolish. It was a revelation. A new standard was set, and there was not a vaudevillist in the auditorium but knew that neither he nor his interpeters could ever reach that standard. The simple and childlike gestures of the slave-girls as with their bodies and their veils they formed a circular tent to hide Cleopatra and her lover – these gestures took away the breath of protest.

Les sylphides

The St. Petersburg and the Moscow troupes, united, of the Russian Imperial Ballet, had been brought to Paris, at vast expense and considerable loss, to present this astounding spectacle of mere magnificent sanguinary lubricity to the cosmopolitan fashion of Paris. There the audience actually was, rank after rank of crowded toilettes rising to the dim ceiling, young women from the Avenue du Bois and young women from Arizona, and their protective and possessive men. And nobody blenched, no body swooned. The audience was taken by assault. The West End of Europe was just staggered into acceptance. As yet London has seen only fragments of Russian ballet. But London may and probably will see the whole. Let there be no qualms. London will accept also. London might be horribly scared by one-quarter of the audacity shown in Cleopatra, but it will not be scared by the whole of that audacity. An overdose of a fatal drug is itself an antidote. The fact is, that the spectacle was saved by a sort of moral nudity, and by a naïve assurance of its own beauty. Oh! It was extremely beautiful. It was ineffably more beautiful than any other ballet I had ever seen. An artist could feel at once that an intelligence of really remarkable genius had presided over its invention and execution. It was masterfully original from the beginning. It continually furnished new ideals of beauty. It had drawn its inspiration from some rich fountain unknown to us occidentals. Neither in its scenery, nor in its grouping, nor in its pantomime was there any clear trace of that Italian influence which still dominates the European ballet. With a vengeance it was a return to nature and a recommencement. It was brutally direct. It was beastlike; but the incomparable tiger is a beast. It was not perverse. It was too fresh, zealous, and alive to be perverse. Personally I was conscious of the most intense pleasure that I had experienced in a theatre for years. And this was Russia! This was the country that had made such a deadly and disgusting mess of the Russo-Japanese War.

The box was a stage-box. It consisted of a suite of two drawing-rooms, softly upholstered, lit with electric light, and furnished with easy-chairs and mirrors. A hostess might well have offered tea to a score of guests therein. And as a fact there were a dozen people in it. Its size indicated the dimensions of the auditorium, in which it was a mere cell. The curious thing about it was the purely incidental character of its relation to the stage. The front of it was a narrow terrace, like the mouth of a bottle, which offered a magnificent panorama of the auditorium, with a longitudinal slice of the stage at one extremity. From the terrace one glanced vertically down at the stage, as at a street-pavement from a first-storey window. Three persons could be comfortable, and four could be uncomfortable, on the terrace. One or two more, by leaning against chair backs and coiffures, could see half of the longitudinal slice of the stage. The remaining half-dozen were at liberty to meditate in the luxurious twilight of the drawing-room. The Republic, as operatic manager, sells every night some scores, and on its brilliant nights some hundreds, of expensive seats which it is perfectly well aware give no view what
ever of the stage: another illustration of the truth that the sensibility of the conscience of corporations varies inversely with the size of the corporation.

The unforgettable season

But this is nothing. The wonderful aspect of the transaction is that purchasers never lack. They buy and suffer; they buy again and suffer yet again; they live on and reproduce their kind. There was in the hinterland of the box a dapper, vivacious man who might (if he had wasted no time ) have been grandfather to a man as old as I. He was eighty-five years old, and he had sat in boxes of an evening for over sixty years. He talked easily of the heroic age before the Revolution of ’48, when, of course, every woman was an enchantress, and the farces at the Palais Royal were really amusing. He could pipe out whole pages of farce. Except during the entr’actes this man’s curiosity did not extend beyond the shoulders of the young women on the terrace. For him the spectacle might have been something going on round the corner of the next street. He was in a spacious and discreet drawing-room; he had the habit of talking; talking was an essential part of his nightly hygiene; and he talked. Continually impinging, in a manner fourth-dimensional, on my vision of Cleopatra’s violent afternoon, came the “Je me rappelle” of this ancient. Now he was in Rome, now he was in London, and now he was in Florence. He went nightly to the Pergola Theatre when Florence was the capital of Italy. He had tales of kings. He had one tale of a king which, as I could judge from the hard perfection of its phraseology, he had been repeating on every night-out for fifty years. According to this narration he was promenading the inevitable pretty woman in the Cascine at Florence, when a heavily moustached person en civil flashed by, driving a pair of superb bays, and he explained not without pride to the pretty woman that she looked on a king.

“It is that, the king?” exclaimed the pretty ingénue too loudly.

And with a grand bow (of which the present generation has lost the secret) the moustaches, all flashing and driving, leaned from the equipage and answered: “Yes, madame, it is that, the king.

“Et si vous aviez vu la tête de la dame…!” In those days society existed.

I should have heard many more such tales during the entr’acte, but I had to visit the stage. Strictly, I did not desire to visit the stage, but as I possessed the privilege of doing so, I felt bound in pride to go. I saw myself at the great age of eighty-five recounting to somebody else’s grandchildren the marvels that I had witnessed in the coulisses of the Paris Opéra during the unforgettable season of the Russian Imperial Ballet in the early years of the century, when society existed.

At an angle of a passage which connects the auditorium with the tray (the stage is called the tray, and those who call the stage the stage at the Opéra are simpletons and lack guile) were a table and a chair, and, partly on the chair and partly on the table, a stout respectable man: one of the twelve hundred. He looked like a town-councillor, and his life-work on this planet was to distinguish between persons who had the entry and persons who had not the entry. He doubted my genuineness at once, and all the bureaucrat in him glowered from his eyes. Yes! My card was all right, but it made no mention of madame. Therefore, I might pass, but madame might not. Moreover, save in cases very exceptional, ladies were not admitted to the tray. So it appeared! I was up against an entire department of the State. Human nature is such that at that moment, had some power offered me the choice between the ability to write a novel as fine as Crime and Punishment and the ability to triumph instantly over the pestilent town-councillor, I would have chosen the latter. I retired in good order. “You little suspect, town-councillor,” I said to him within myself, “that I am the guest of the management, that I am extremely intimate with the management, and that, indeed, the management is my washpot!” At the next entr’acte I returned again with an omnipotent document which instructed the whole twelve hundred to let both monsieur and madame pass anywhere, everywhere. The town-councillor admitted that it was perfect, so far as it went. But there was the question of my hat to be considered. I was not wearing the right kind of hat! The town councillor planted both his feet firmly on tradition, and defied imperial passports. “Can you have any conception,” I cried to him within myself, “how much this hat cost me at Henry Heath’s?” Useless! Nobody ever had passed, and nobody ever would pass, from the auditorium to the tray in a hat like mine. It was unthinkable. It would be an outrage on the Code Napoléon…. After all, the man had his life-work to perform. At length he offered to keep my hat for me till I came back. I yielded. I was beaten. I was put to shame. But he had earned a night’s repose.

* * * * * *

The famous, the notorious foyer de la danse was empty. Here was an evening given exclusively to the ballet, and not one member of the corps had had the idea of exhibiting herself in the showroom specially provided by the State as a place or rendezvous for ladies and gentlemen. The most precious quality of an annual subscription for a seat at the Opéra is that it carries with it the entry to the foyer de la danse (provided one’s hat is right); if it did not, the subscriptions to the Opéra would assuredly diminish. And lo! the gigantic but tawdry mirror which gives a factitious amplitude to a room that is really small, did not reflect the limbs of a single dancer! The place had a mournful, shabby genteel look, as of a resort gradually losing fashion. It was tarnished. It did not in the least correspond with a young man’s dreams of it. Yawning tedium hung in it like a vapour, that tedium which is the implacable secret enemy of dissoluteness. This, the foyer de la danse, where the insipidly vicious heroines of Halévy’s ironic masterpiece achieved, with a mother’s aid, their ducal conquests! It was as cruel a disillusion as the first sight of Rome or Jerusalem. Its meretriciousness would not have deceived even a visionary parlour-maid. Nevertheless, the world of the Opéra was astounded at the neglect of its hallowed foyer by these young women from St. Petersburg and Moscow. I was told, with emotion, that on only two occasions in the whole season had a Russian girl wandered therein. The legend of the sobriety and the chastity of these strange Russians was abroad in the Opéra like a strange, uncanny tale. Frankly, Paris could not understand it. Because all these creatures were young, and all of them conformed to some standard or other of positive physical beauty! They could not be old, for the reason that a ukase obliged them to retire after twenty years’ service at latest; that is, at about the age of thirty-six, a time of woman’s life which on the Paris stage is regarded as infancy. Such a ukase must surely have been promulgated by Ivan the Terrible or Catherine!… No! Paris never recovered from the wonder of the fact that when they were not dancing these lovely girls were just honest misses, with apparently no taste for bank-notes and spiced meats, even in the fever of an unexampled artistic and fashionable success.

An honest miss

Amid the turmoil of the stage, where the prodigiously original peacock-green scenery of Scheherazade was being set, a dancer could be seen here and there in a corner, waiting, preoccupied, worried, practising a step or a gesture. I was clumsy enough to encounter one of the principals who did not want to be encountered; we could not escape from each other. There was nothing for it but to shake hands. His face assumed the weary, unwilling smile of conventional politeness. His fingers were limp.

“It pleases you?”
“Enormously.”

I turned resolutely away at once, and with relief he lapsed back into his preoccupation concerning the half-hour’s intense emotional and physical labour that lay immediately in front of him. In a few moments the curtain went up, and the terrific creative energy of the troupe began to vent itself. And I began to understand a part of the secret of the extreme brilliance of the Russian ballet.

Chief eunuch

The brutality of Scheherazade was shocking. It was the Arabian Nights treated with imaginative realism. In perusing the Arabian Nights we never try to picture to ourselves the manners of a real Bagdad; or we never dare. We lean on the picturesque splendour and romantic poetry of certain aspects of the existence portrayed, and we shirk the basic facts: the crudity of the passions, and the superlative cruelty informing the whole social system. For example, we should not dream of dwelling on the more serious functions of the caliphian eunuchs. In the surpassing fury and magnificence of the Russian ballet one saw eunuchs actually at work, scimitar in hand. There was the frantic orgy, and then there was the barbarous punishment, terrible and revolting; certainly one of the most sanguinary sights ever seen on an occidental stage. The eunuchs pursued the fragile and beautiful odalisques with frenzy; in an instant the seraglio was strewn with murdered girls in all the abandoned postures of death. And then silence, save for the hard breathing of the executioners!… A thrill! It would seem incredible that such a spectacle should give pleasure. Yet it unquestionably did, and very exquisite pleasure. The artists, both the creative and the interpretative, had discovered an artistic convention which was at once grandiose and truthful. The passions displayed were primitive, but they were ennobled in their illustration. The performance was regulated to the least gesture; no detail was unstudied; and every moment was beautiful; not a few were sublime.

Scheherazade

And all this a by-product of Russian politics! If the politics of France are subtly corrupt; if any thing can be done in France by nepotism and influence, and nothing without; if the governing machine of France is fatally vitiated by an excessive and unimaginative centralisation — the same is far more shamefully true of Russia. The fantastic in efficiency of all the great departments of State in Russia is notorious and scandalous. But the Imperial ballet, where one might surely have presumed an intensification of every defect (as in Paris), happens to be far nearer perfection than any other enterprise of its kind, public or private. It is genuinely dominated by artists of the first rank; it is invigorated by a real discipline; and the results achieved approach the miraculous. The pity is that the moujik can never learn that one, at any rate, of the mysterious transactions which pass high up over his head, and for which he is robbed, is in itself honest and excellent. An alleviating thought for the moujik, if only it could be knocked into his great thick head! For during the performance of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Paris Opéra, amid all the roods of toilettes and expensive correctness, one thinks of the moujik; or one ought to think of him. He is at the bottom of it. See him in Tchekoff’s masterly tale, The Moujiks, in his dirt, squalor, drunkenness, lust, servitude, and despair! Realise him well at the back of your mind as you watch the ballet! Your delightful sensations before an unrivalled work of art are among the things he has paid for.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist and playwright. He lived in Paris from 1902 to 1912. In 1910 he saw the ballets Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade (based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s music), choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and performed by the Ballet Russes. Sergei Diaghilev formed the touring company out of members of the The Mariinsky Ballet, or Imperial Russian Ballet, in 1909. It became known as the Ballet Russes the following year. The illustrations by E.A. Rickards, with their captions, come from Bennett’s book.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of a London Playgoer

‘Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merriles’ (c.1855) Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 80-81

Production: Daniel Terry, Guy Mannering, Haymarket Theatre, London, 11 February 1854

Text: 1854, February 11.— ‘Guy Mannering’ is very nicely produced at the HAYMARKET. The scenery is new, the grouping is effective, the cast is tolerably good, and there is one piece of acting in it of an excellent and very striking kind. Miss Cushman’s melodramatic Meg Merrilies has quite as indisputably the attributes of genius about it as any piece of poetry or tragedy could have. Such is her power over the intention and feeling of the part that the mere words of it become a secondary matter. It is the figure, the gait, the look, the gesture, the tone, by which she puts beauty and passion into language the most indifferent. The effect is not wholly agreeable. Nevertheless it is something to see what the unassisted resources of acting may achieve with the mere idea of a fine part, stripped of fine language, unclothed as it were in words. The human tenderness blending with that Eastern picturesqueness of gesture, the refined sentiment breaking out from beneath that heavy feebleness and clumsiness of rude old age, are wonderfully startling. Mr. Compton is a good Dominie Sampson, and Miss Harland looks and sings very pleasingly in Lucy Bertram. Mr. Howe is not enough of the ruffian in Dirk Hatteraick. He looks rather an honest fellow; and though he might have been as innocently fond of a garden of tulips as Scott makes his Dutch smuggler, he would not have plundered and murdered on all sides simply to get at that source of natural enjoyment.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) was one of the great figures of the nineteenth-century American stage. The role of Meg Merrilees in Daniel Terry‘s adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering was one of her signature roles.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Epistle to Daiphantus, or the Passions of Love

From page of Epistle to Daiphantus via Shakepeare Documented

Source: ‘An. Sc.’ [Anthony Scoloker?], extract from Epistle to Daiphantus, or the Passions of Love (William Cotton, 1604)

Text:
[From the introductory section]

It should be like the Neuer-too-well read Arcadia, where the Prose and Verce, (Matter and Words) are like his Mistresses eyes one still excelling another and without Coriuall for to come home to the vulgars Element, like Friendly Shake-speares Tragedies, where the Commedian rides, when the Tragedian stands on Tip-toe: Faith it should please all, like Prince Hamlet.

[From the poem]

His breath, he thinkes the smoke; his tongue a cole,
Then calls for bottell-ale; to quench his thirst:
Runs to his Inke-pot, drinkes, then stops the hole,
And thus growes madder, then he was at first.
Tasso, he finds, by that of Hamlet, thinkes.
Tearmes him a mad-man; than of his Inkhorne drinks.

Calls Players fooles, the foole he iudgeth wisest,
Will learne them Action, out of Chaucers Pander:
Proues of their Poets bawdes euen in the highest,
Then drinkes a health; and sweares it is no slander.
Puts off his cloathes; his shirt he onely weares,
Much like mad-Hamlet; thus as Passion teares.

Comments: Daiphantus, or the Passions of Love is a poem, printed in 1604, expressed from the point of view of a courtier, Daiphantus, whose character commentators have seen as being similar to William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. The poem is credited to ‘An. Sc’, sometimes identified as the printer Anthony Scoloker, though he died in 1593, or a relative of his. When Hamlet was first performed Richard Burbage almost certainly took the leading role. The reference to Hamlet wearing only his shirt indicates an actual piece of stage business witnessed by the author.

Links: Copy at Early English Books Online

Journal of Frances Anne Butler

‘Mr Kean as Othello’, lithograph print, c.1830, via Victoria and Albert Museum

Source: Journal of Frances Anne Butler (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1835), vol. 1 (of 2), p. 147

Text: Kean is gone — and with him are gone Othello, Shylock, and Richard. I have lived among those whose theatrical creed would not permit them to acknowledge him as a great actor; but they must be bigoted, indeed, who would deny that he was a great genius, a man of most original and striking powers, careless of art,perhaps because he did not need it; but possessing those rare gifts of nature, without which art alone is as a dead body. Who that ever heard, will ever forget the beauty, the unutterable tenderness of his reply to Desdemona’s entreaties for Cassio. “Let him come when he will, I can deny thee nothing;” the deep despondency of his “Oh now farewell;” the miserable anguish of his “Oh, Desdemona, away, away.” Who that ever saw, will ever forget the fascination of his dying eyes in Richard; when deprived of his sword, the wondrous power of his look seemed yet to avert the uplifted arm of Richmond. If he was irregular and unartist-like in his performances, so is Niagara, compared with the water works of Versailles.

Comments: Frances Anne ‘Fanny’ Kemble (1809-1893) was a British stage actress and writer, a member of the celebrated Kemble theatrical family. She married Pierce Mease Butler in 1834. The British actor Edmund Kean died 15 May 1833.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba

Source: William Seymour Edwards, On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1906), pp. 198-200

Text: Last night was to be my final one in Mexico, and as a troupe of Spanish actors was billed at one of the larger theaters, I went to see the play. There are a number of playhouses in the city, and paternal government is laying the foundation for an opera-house which, it is announced, will be one of the most “magnifico” in the world. The theater we attended was one of the largest, and the actors, Spaniards from Barcelona, were filling a season’s engagement. In purchasing tickets, the first novelty was the separate coupons which are issued for each act. You buy for one act or another as you prefer. The Mexicans rarely stay the play out, but linger for an act or two and then depart. There are tiers of boxes around the sides, in which were many men and ladies in evening dress, the belles and beaux of the city. We sat among the occupants of the seats upon the floor, the greater part of whom were men. The first noticeable difference between the audience here and that at home is that every man keeps on his hat except when occupying a box. It is bad enough, we think, for a woman to retain her hat or bonnet, but imagine how it is when you are confronted by multitudinous high-peaked broad-brimmed sombreros of the most obtrusive type. The excuse for the wearing of these great hats upon all occasions is, that in the chilly air of these high altitudes, it becomes a necessary protection.

The faces about me were dark; even the men in the boxes were of darker color than would be those of the pure Spanish blood. The women are also dark, their color much darker than that of the usual mulatto in the States. This is due to the large infusion of Indian blood among the Mexican people, even among the leisure classes.

The actors were of the Spanish swarthy type, but among the actresses, there were, as always, two or three with conspicuously red heads, the Venetian red so pronounced and popular among the London shopgirls. These red headed belles received the entire attention and applause of the male portion of the audience. The audience also smoked incessantly, the gentlemen large Mexican cigars, the ladies their cigarettes. The right to smoke is an inalienable privilege of both sexes in Mexico, the women using tobacco almost as freely and constantly as do the men. The acting was good, and some of the fandango dances brought thunders of bravos. The pauses between acts were long. In one of the intervals we sauntered out upon the streets, where a mob of ticket brokers so assailed us and bargained so successfully for our remaining coupons, that we sold them at an advance over the figure we had paid. The plays begin early, about seven o’clock, and the doors stay open until midnight, the constantly changing audiences giving to the actors fresh support.

On a previous night we visited another theater, where a more fashionable company gathered to see the well-known Frenchman, Frijoli, in his clever impersonations of character. Here were assembled Mexico’s most fashionable set, among them a party of distinguished South Americans attending the Pan-American Congress, the ladies from Brazil, Argentina, and Chili wearing costly diamonds, and being in full decollete attire.

Here also the sombrero reigned supreme in dress circle and on parquet floor, and smoking was everywhere indulged in.

Comments: William Seymour Edwards (1856-1915) was an American businessman, Republican politicians and travel writer. He visited Mexico and Cuba in 1905-06. The theatre he attended was in Mexico City.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 18 February 1667

Production: Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, The Maid’s Tragedy, King’s House, London, 18 February 1667

Text: Thence away, and with my wife by coach to the Duke of York’s play-house, expecting a new play, and so stayed not no more than other people, but to the King’s house, to “The Mayd’s Tragedy;” but vexed all the while with two talking ladies and Sir Charles Sedley; yet pleased to hear their discourse, he being a stranger. And one of the ladies would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find, out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant ‘rencontre’ I never heard. But by that means lost the pleasure of the play wholly, to which now and then Sir Charles Sedley’s exceptions against both words and pronouncing were very pretty. So home and to the office, did much business, then home, to supper, and to bed.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The Maid’s Tragedy was written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Sir Charles Sedley was a politician, dramatist and notorious libertine.

Links: www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/02/18/

Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixot

Source: Edmund Gayton, Pleasant Notes upon Don Quixot (London, 1654)

Text: And although the only Laureat of our stage (having compos’d a Play of excellent worth, but not of equall applause) fell downe upon his knees, and gave thanks, that he had transcended the capacity of the vulgar; yet his protestation against their ignorance, was not sufficient to vindicate the misapplication of the argument; for the judicious part of that Auditory condemn’d it equally with those that did not understand it, and though the Comaedy wanted not its

prodesse, & delectare,

Had it been exhibited to a scholastick confluence; yet men come not to study at a Play-house, but love such expressions and passages, which with ease insinuate themselves into their capacities. Lingua, that learned Comaedy of the contention betwixt the five senses for the superiority, is not to be prostituted to the common stage, but is only proper for an Academy; to them bring Iack Drumm’s entertainment, Greens tu quoque, the Devill of Edmunton, and the like; or if it be on Holy dayes, when Saylers, Water-men, Shoomakers, Butchers and Apprentices are at leisure, then it is good policy to amaze those violent spirits, with some tearing Tragaedy full of fights and skirmishes: As the Guelphs and Guiblins, Greeks and Trojans, or the three London Apprentises, which commonly ends in six acts, the spectators frequently mounting the stage, and making a more bloody Catastrophe amongst themselves, then the Players did. I have known upon one of these Festivals, but especially at Shrove-tide, where the Players have been appointed, notwithstanding their bils to the contrary, to act what the major part of the company had a mind to; sometimes Tamerlane, sometimes Iugurth, sometimes the Jew of Malta, and sometimes parts of all these, and at last, none of the three taking, they were forc’d to undresse and put off their Tragick habits, and conclude the day with the merry milk-maides. And unlesse this were done, and the popular humour satisfied, as sometimes it so fortun’d, that the Players were refractory; the Benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, Oranges, Apples, Nuts, flew about most liberally, and as there were Mechanicks of all professions, who fell every one to his owne trade, and dissolved a house in an instant, and made a ruine of a stately Fabrick. It was not then the most mimicall nor fighting man, Fowler, nor Andrew Cane could pacifie; Prologues nor Epilogues would prevaile; the Devill and the fool were quite out of favour. Nothing but noise and tumult fils the house, untill a cogg take ‘um, and then to the Bawdy houses, and reforme them; and instantly to the Banks side, where the poor Beares must conclude the riot, and fight twenty dogs at a time beside the Butchers, which sometimes fell into the service; this perform’d, and the Horse and Jack-an-Apes for a jigge, they had sport enough that day for nothing.

Comments: Edmund Gayton (1608-1666) was an English physician and writer. His Pleasant notes upon Don Quixot, known as also as Festivous Notes upon Don Quixot is a rambling study of Don Quixote which many asides anecdotes, including observations on the theatre. It was published in 1654, when theatrical performances in England were banned under Cromwell’s regime, so his recollections of the misbehaviour of audiences at theatrical performances during Shrovetide probably refers to the 1630s. The plays referred to include The Merry Devil of Edmonton, John Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine the Great, William Boyle’s Jugurth (possibly), and presumably Thomas Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London.

Links: Copy at Early English Books Online

Lewis Carroll’s Diaries

‘Henry VIII: Queen Katherine’s Dream’, from Illustrated London News 2 June 18855, reproduced in Shakespeare’s Staging

Source: Edward Wakeling (ed.), Lewis Carroll’s Diaries: The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), vol. 1 (Lewis Carroll Society: Publications Unit, 1993), pp. 104-106

Productions: John Maddison Morton, Away with Melancholy and William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Henry VIII, Princesses’s Theatre, London, 22 June 1855

Text: Went to the Gallery of the British Artists where I scarcely got the worth of my shilling – then heard a very good lecture on the model of Sebastopol in Leicester Square, and at five joined Ranken and a man of the name Brown at the Wellington Hotel, where we dined before going to the ‘Princess’. The evening began with a capital farce, Away with Melancholy, and then came the great play, Henry VIII, the greatest theatrical treat I ever had or expect to have. I had no idea that anything so superb as the scenery and dresses was ever to be seen on the stage. Kean was magnificent as Cardinal Wolsey, Mrs. Kean a worthy successor to Mrs. Siddons in Queen Catherine, and all the accessories without exception were good – but oh, that exquisite vision of Queen Catherine! I almost held my breath to watch: the illusion is perfect, and I felt as if in a dream all the time it lasted. It was like a delicious reverie, or the most beautiful poetry. This is the true end and object of acting – to raise the mind above itself, and out of its petty everyday cares – never shall I forget that wonderful evening, that exquisite vision – sunbeams broke in through the roof, and gradually revealed two angel forms, floating in front of the carved work on the ceiling: the column of sunbeams shone down upon the sleeping queen, and gradually down it floated a troop of angelic forms, transparent, and carrying palm branches in their hands: they waved these over the sleeping queen, with oh! such a sad and solemn grace. So could I fancy (if the thought be not profane) would real angels seem to our mortal vision, though doubtless our conception is poor and mean to the reality. She in an ecstasy raises her arms towards them, and to sweet slow music they vanish as marvellously as they came. Then the profound silence of the audience burst at once into a rapture of applause; but even that scarcely marred the effect of the beautiful sad waking words of the Queen, “Spirits of peace, where are ye?” I never enjoyed anything so much in my life before: and never felt so inclined to shed tears at anything fictitious, save perhaps at that poetical gem of Dickens, the death of little Paul.

Comments: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, was a British mathematician, photographer and children’s author, best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The production of Shakespeare and Fletcher‘s Henry VIII that he saw at the Princess’s Theatre in London was produced by the theatre’s manager, Charles Kean (son of Edmund Kean). It was one a number of spectacular Shakespearean revival presented at the Princess’s, which placed emphasis on historical ‘authenticity’. Queen Katherine was played by Ellen Tree, Charles Kean’s wife. Away with Melancholy was a one-act farce written by John Maddison Morton, best known for Box and Cox.

A Journal of Travels in England, Holland, and Scotland

Source: Benjamin Silliman, A Journal of Travels in England, Holland, and Scotland, and of two passages over the Atlantic, in the years 1805 and 1806, vol. 1 (Boston: T.B. Wait and Co. for Howe and Deforest, and Increase Cook and Co. Newhaven, 1812), pp. 268-269

Production: Zittaw; or, The Woodman’s Daughter, Astley’s Amphitheatre, London, 19 July 1805

Text: ASTLEY’S AMPHITHEATRE. July 19. — I had made an appointment to meet an American friend this evening, at the door of Astley’s amphitheatre, which is just over Westminster bridge on the Surry side. This theatre is precisely on the plan of the royal circus, and the entertainments are of the same kind, that is, pantomime, buffoonery, and riding. The house is very splendid, and the scenery, decorations, and machinery are in a style of very uncommon elegance.

The evening was opened with the pantomime of Zittaw, or the Woodman’s daughter. It was the most intelligible pantomime that I have ever seen ; this was owing to the liberty they took of speaking certain parts in plain English — of singing others, and of frequently displaying pieces of painted cloth, containing, in large capitals, a hint of the story.

And what was the subject of the pantomime? Do you ask? It was that which is the first, second and third thing in all theatrical performances.

If we are to believe the theatres, love is a most sanguinary passion, for it rarely comes to a catastrophe without murder. They killed no fewer than four, in the course of this pantomime. Even the lady herself, who is the heroine of the story, is made, in the progress of the representation, to appear on the stage, and to fence for a good while, with one of her unsuccessful suitors, whom at length, (being unable to des patch him with the sword,) she destroys with a pistol ball. It is to be hoped that this was not a very faithful copy of life, for, surely, it is enough to be repulsed, without being murdered besides.

Comments: Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864) was a pioneering American chemist. The ‘pantomime’ he saw while visiting London in 1805 was presumably based on the gothic story Zittaw the Cruel; or The Woodsman’s Daughter, A Polish Romance by prolific writer of chapbooks Sarah Wilkinson. Astley’s Amphitheatre was originally a circus (opened 1770), but later put on pantomimes and other such entertainments. It was located by Westminster Bridge and had burned down twice before it became famous in the 1800s for its equestrian spectaculars.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of an Invalid

Source: Henry Matthews, The Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819, vol. 2 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), pp. 216-217

Production: Alexandre Duval, Édouard en Écosse, Toulouse, 22 January 1819

Text: 22d. In the evening to the theatre. The play was Edouard en Ecosse; founded on the adventures of the Pretender in England, the work of M. Duval, who is fond of dramatising English story. The part of Charles Edward was admirably played by Beauchamp. His face and appearance, when he first comes in, pale and worn out with fatigue, presented a striking resemblance of Napoleon. The political allusions with which the play abounds, were eagerly seized throughout, and applied to the Ex-Emperor.—“Je n’ai fait que des ingrats” was long and loudly applauded. In the last act of the play the air of “God save the King” was incidentally introduced; which afforded the audience an opportunity of manifesting their feeling towards England, which they did not neglect — and an universal hiss broke out. A pantomime followed, but a very faint imitation of the inimitable entertainment which is called by that name in England. The first dancer is called Harlequin, without his wand or his tricks; the first female dancer is Columbine; and the unfortunate Pantaloon, in addition to his own part, is Clown also; so that besides the kicks on the breeches which he receives in quality of the first character, he has also to endure the slaps of the face which fall to the lot of the second. His mock dance was excellent; and his animated sack, for he jumps into a sack and displays wonderful locomotive powers therein, was worthy of Grimaldi himself.

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. Alexandre-Vincent Pineux Duval was a French actor, dramatist and theatre manager. His three-act play Édouard en Écosse, on Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), was published in 1801. I am unsure of the precise theatre in Toulouse, and of the identity of the actor Beauchamp.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust