Letters of Anna Seward

‘Mrs. Siddons as Rosalind’, via Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

Source: Anna Seward, letter to Sophia Weston, in Letters of Anna Seward: written between the years 1784 and 1807 (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), pp. 165-266

Production: William Shakespeare, As You Like It,

Text: Lichfield, July 20, 1876 … For the first time, I saw the justly celebrated Mrs Siddons in comedy, in Rosalind :—but though her smile is as enchanting, as her frown is magnificent, as her tears are irresistible, yet the playful scintillations of colloquial wit, which most strongly mark that character, suit not the dignity of the Siddonian form and countenance. Then her dress was injudicious. The scrupulous prudery of decency, produced an ambiguous vestment, that seemed neither male nor female. When she first came on as the princess, nothing could be more charming; nor than when she resumed her original character, and exchanged comic spirit for dignified tenderness. One of those rays of exquisite and original discrimination, which her genius so perpetually elicits, shone out on her first rushing upon the stage in her own resumed person and dress; when she bent her knee to her father, the Duke, and said—

“To you I give myself—for I am yours”

and when, falling into Orlando’s arms, she repeated the same words,

“To you I give myself—for I am yours!

The marked difference of her look and voice in repeating that line, and particularly the last word of it, was inimitably striking. The tender joy of filial love was in the first; the whole soul of enamoured transport in the second. The extremely heightened emphasis on the word yours, produced an effect greater than you can conceive could re sult from the circumstance, without seeing and hearing it given by that mistress of the passions.

Comments: Anna Seward (1742-1809) was an English poet, known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield’. Sarah Siddons was on a tour of regional theatres and it is unclear in which town Seward saw her performing in As You Like It.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Travels in England in 1782

1783 drawing of the original Haymarket Theatre, via Charles John Smith, Historical and Literary Curiosities (1847)

Source: Charles P. Moritz [Karl Philipp Moritz], Travels in England in 1782 (London: Cassell, 1886), pp. 73-74, orig. pub. Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782 (1783) and in English as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend (1795)

Productions: Samuel Foote, The Nabob and Samuel Arnold/John O’Keefe, The Agreeable Surprise, Haymarket Theatre, London, 4 June 1782; and George Colman (the elder), The English Merchant and The Agreeable Surprise, 15 June 1782

Text: Last week I went twice to an English play-house. The first time “The Nabob” was represented, of which the late Mr. Foote was the author, and for the entertainment, a very pleasing and laughable musical farce, called “The Agreeable Surprise.” The second time I saw “The English Merchant:” which piece has been translated into German, and is known among us by the title of “The Scotchwoman,” or “The Coffee-house.” I have not yet seen the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, because they are not open in summer. The best actors also usually spend May and October in the country, and only perform in winter.

A very few excepted, the comedians whom I saw were certainly nothing extraordinary. For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom. Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence. At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up. I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside, with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one. Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool. In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

In Foote’s “Nabob” there are sundry local and personal satires which are entirely lost to a foreigner. The character of the Nabob was performed by a Mr. Palmer. The jett of the character is, this Nabob, with many affected airs and constant aims at gentility, is still but a silly fellow, unexpectedly come into the possession of immense riches, and therefore, of course, paid much court to by a society of natural philosophers, Quakers, and I do not know who besides. Being tempted to become one of their members, he is elected, and in order to ridicule these would-be philosophers, but real knaves, a fine flowery fustian speech is put into his mouth, which he delivers with prodigious pomp and importance, and is listened to by the philosophers with infinite complacency. The two scenes of the Quakers and philosophers, who, with countenances full of imaginary importance, were seated at a green table with their president at their head while the secretary, with the utmost care, was making an inventory of the ridiculous presents of the Nabob, were truly laughable. One of the last scenes was best received: it is that in which the Nabob’s friend and school-fellow visit him, and address him without ceremony by his Christian name; but to all their questions of “Whether he does not recollect them? Whether he does not remember such and such a play; or such and such a scrape into which they had fallen in their youth?” he uniformly answers with a look of ineffable contempt, only, “No sir!” Nothing can possibly be more ludicrous, nor more comic.

The entertainment, “The Agreeable Surprise,” is really a very diverting farce. I observed that, in England also, they represent school-masters in ridiculous characters on the stage, which, though I am sorry for, I own I do not wonder at, as the pedantry of school-masters in England, they tell me, is carried at least as far as it is elsewhere. The same person who, in the play, performed the school-fellow of the Nabob with a great deal of nature and original humour, here acted the part of the school-master: his name is Edwin, and he is, without doubt, one of the best actors of all that I have seen.

This school-master is in love with a certain country girl, whose name is Cowslip, to whom he makes a declaration of his passion in a strange mythological, grammatical style and manner, and to whom, among other fooleries, he sings, quite enraptured, the following air, and seems to work himself at least up to such a transport of passion as quite overpowers him. He begins, you will observe, with the conjugation, and ends with the declensions and the genders; the whole is inimitably droll:

Amo, amas,
I love a lass,
She is so sweet and tender,
It is sweet Cowslip’s Grace
In the Nominative Case.
And in the feminine Gender.

Those two sentences in particular, “in the Nominative Case,” and “in the feminine Gender,” he affects to sing in a particularly languishing air, as if confident that it was irresistible. This Edwin, in all his comic characters, still preserves something so inexpressibly good-tempered in his countenance, that notwithstanding all his burlesques and even grotesque buffoonery, you cannot but be pleased with him. I own, I felt myself doubly interested for every character which he represented. Nothing could equal the tone and countenance of self-satisfaction with which he answered one who asked him whether he was a scholar? “Why, I was a master of scholars.” A Mrs. Webb represented a cheesemonger, and played the part of a woman of the lower class so naturally as I have nowhere else ever seen equalled. Her huge, fat, and lusty carcase, and the whole of her external appearance seemed quite to be cut out for it.

Poor Edwin was obliged, as school-master, to sing himself almost hoarse, as he sometimes was called on to repeat his declension and conjugation songs two or three times, only because it pleased the upper gallery, or “the gods,” as the English call them, to roar out “encore.” Add to all this, he was farther forced to thank them with a low bow for the great honour done him by their applause.

One of the highest comic touches in the piece seemed to me to consist in a lie, which always became more and more enormous in the mouths of those who told it again, during the whole of the piece. This kept the audience in almost a continual fit of laughter. This farce is not yet printed, or I really think I should be tempted to venture to make a translation, or rather an imitation of it.

“The English Merchant, or the Scotchwoman,” I have seen much better performed abroad than it was here. Mr. Fleck, at Hamburg, in particular, played the part of the English merchant with more interest, truth, and propriety than one Aickin did here. He seemed to me to fail totally in expressing the peculiar and original character of Freeport; instead of which, by his measured step and deliberate, affected manner of speaking, he converted him into a mere fine gentleman.

The trusty old servant who wishes to give up his life for his master he, too, had the stately walk, or strut, of a minister. The character of the newspaper writer was performed by the same Mr. Palmer who acted the part of the Nabob, but every one said, what I thought, that he made him far too much of a gentleman. His person, and his dress also, were too handsome for the character.

The character of Amelia was performed by an actress, who made her first appearance on the stage, and from a timidity natural on such an occasion, and not unbecoming, spoke rather low, so that she could not everywhere be heard; “Speak louder! speak louder!” cried out some rude fellow from the upper-gallery, and she immediately, with infinite condescension, did all she could, and not unsuccessfully, to please even an upper gallery critic.

The persons near me, in the pit, were often extravagantly lavish of their applause. They sometimes clapped a single solitary sentiment, that was almost as unmeaning as it was short, if it happened to be pronounced only with some little emphasis, or to contain some little point, some popular doctrine, a singularly pathetic stroke, or turn of wit.

“The Agreeable Surprise” was repeated, and I saw it a second time with unabated pleasure. It is become a favourite piece, and always announced with the addition of the favourite musical farce. The theatre appeared to me somewhat larger than the one at Hamburg, and the house was both times very full. Thus much for English plays, play-houses, and players.

Comments: Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) was a German essayist and literary critic. He visited England over June/July 1782, publishing an account of his travels as Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782 in 1783, which was published in English as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend (1795). The above comes from this translation, though improved translations have been published subsequently. He first visited the Haymarket on 4 June 1782, where he saw Samuel Foote‘s comedy The Nabob and Samuel Arnold and John O’Keefe‘s comic opera afterpiece The Agreeable Surprise. He returned on 15 June 1782 to see George Colman the Elder‘s The Englishman Merchant, followed by a repeat performance of The Agreeable Surprise. The performers described include John Palmer, John Edwin and (presumably) James Aickin.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

Ambassador Dodd’s Diary

Poster for the 1934 Oberammergau Passion Play, via www.passionsspiele-oberammergau.de

Source: William E. Dodd Jr. and Martha Dodd (eds.), Ambassador Dodd’s Diary, 1933-1938 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1941), pp. 163-163

Production: Oberammergau Passion Play, Passion Play Theatre, Oberammergau, Germany, 22 August 1934

Text: August 22, Wednesday. I went with my family to the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, escorted by the mayor who had kindly sent us tickets. The mayor gave the Hitler greeting whenever he met any acquaintance on the street. We were all seated together in the reserved section but I think few if any of our neighbours knew who we were.

The play during the morning portrayed the early life of Jesus and the Old Testament prophecies and scenes showing what the Christian churches have always claimed were the connecting links between the Old and New Testaments. I saw no Jews present. There were 6,000 people in the beautiful hall. It is open at the end where the stage is located, and one gazes constantly upon a most beautiful mountain scene. It is a wonderful setting.

The chief actor is Lang, son of the man who gave the play its present form some thirty years ago. The Lang family are masters of the town, Oberammergau having normally 3,000 inhabitants whose main income each year is from visitors, foreign and German, who go there to see the Jesus tragedy. I think Lang is an excellent actor and the choir which sings or recites interludes in a grand style is impressive.

At 2 o’clock we took our places again in the great hall and the tragedy slowly moved to its culmination: the betrayal by Judas, the trail of Jesus and the awful scene of the executions on the cross, with law officers climbing short ladders to the crucified individuals and beating them before their deaths. When Jesus was tried before the angry Jewish court, a well-dressed German, looking very solemn, said to me: “Es ist unser Hitler.” Ida Horne, a distant kinswoman of mine, sitting in another part of the hall, told me as we came out together: “A woman near me said, as Judas received his thirty pieces of silver, ‘Es ist Roehm!’” I suspect half the audience, the German part, considers Hitler as Germany’s Messiah.

Comments: William Edward Dodd (1869-1940) was an American historian and diplomat. he served as US Ambassador to Germany 1933-1937. A passion play has been performed at Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany, since 1634. The play is usually performed every ten years where the year ends in a nought, but a special 300th anniversary performance was put on for 1934. This had the support of the Nazi regime which had come to power the previous year. Ernst Röhm, or Roehm, leader of the Sturmabteilung paramilitary force, had been a close ally of Adolf Hitler but Hitler saw him as a threat and had him killed during the ‘Night of the Long Knives‘ the month before this performance. Hitler had seen the production on August 13. Anton Lang played the role of Prologue Speaker, having play the role of Christ in earlier productions.

Links: History of 1934 production on 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play site (in English)

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Astley’s Amphitheatre, via V&A

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), p. 155

Text: May 9 [1811] … Astley’s is an equestrian spectacle. I supposed that a thing of that sort would be particularly good in England, which is a sort of island of the Houyhnhnms. I found, however, that the horses were but indifferently trained, and the men performed only common feats; and, instead of equitation, we had dramatic pieces and Harlequin tricks, — battles and assaults, — Moors and Saracens. The horses performed as actors, just as at Covent Garden; they galloped over the pit, and mounted the boards of the stage covered with earth, storming walls and ramparts. The interval between the exhibitions being very long, a parcel of dirty boys (amateurs), in rags, performed awkward tricks of tumbling, raising a cloud of dust, and showing their nakedness to the applauding audience; the vociferations from the gallery were perfectly deafening, and the hoarse vulgar voice of the clown eagerly re-echoed by them. Looking round the room, meanwhile, I saw the boxes filled with decent people, — grave and demure citizens, with their wives and children, who seemed to take pleasure in all this. It is really impossible not to form an unfavourable opinion of the taste of the English public, when we find them in general so excessively low and vulgar in the choice of their amusements.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. 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 Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses in Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels.

Links:

‘Neath the Mask

Source: Eric Lugg, quoted in John M. East, ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967), p. 140

Text: The whole atmosphere of playgoing at the Lyric was an exciting thing. It was something I shall never forget, and an experience I have never recaptured in any other theatre. Before the curtain rose everybody shouted greetings to each other like “’Ello, Liz!” and then a “Watcher ‘Arry” would come back. There was an incomparable, yet pleasant odour about the place, a mixture of human bodies, orange-peel and tobacco-smoke, and generally a tremendous air of expectancy. Then the band would come into the pit, and begin to tune up, and finally the curtain would rise. And what stage pictures they were! What vitality! What red-blooded magnificent acting! And the incidental music, that was exciting too. “Deberterdom, deberterdom, deberterdom” accompanied the sort of “Will he get there in time?” scene, and the violins would “Der, der, der, der, der, der, der, de, la la la la la la la” we the poor mite was begging for pennies in the snow. Yes, all this added up to a wonderful might in the theatre.

Comments: Eric Lugg (1890-1979) was a British stage and film actor. He is recalling his impressions of the company of John M. East at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London (then known as the New Lyric Opera House), in the early 1900s. Lugg’s father and uncle had acted for East, a celebrated actor-producer of stage melodramas, also a silent film actor, whose grandson, the actor and broadcaster John M. East, wrote his biography.

Pepys’ Diary

Engraving of Nell Gwyn as Cupid, c.1672, a copy of which was owned by Samuel Pepys, via Wikipedia

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 2 March 1667

Production: John Dryden, Secret Love; or, The Maiden Queen, King’s House, London, 2 March 1667

Text: After dinner, with my wife, to the King’s house to see “The Mayden Queene,” a new play of Dryden’s, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and, the truth is, there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman. The King and Duke of York were at the play. But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girle, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. John Dryden‘s tragicomedy Secret Love; or, The Maiden Queen was a particular favourite; he records seeing the play eight times in the diary. A large part of the attraction was undoubtedly due to Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn (1650-1687), the most celebrated actor of her time, and mistress to King Charles II. Pepys first saw her on 3 April 1665 in Roger Boyle‘s Mustapha, where he refers to her as “pretty witty Nell”. The performance of The Maiden Queen that he records he was the play’s debut, performed by the King’s Company at what would become the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. It was probably her most successful and celebrated role.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/03/02/

Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry

Source: Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852 (London: Longmans, Green, 1865), p. 51

Text: The serious opera is performed in a small theatre. In the new theatre we saw the tragedy of Tamerlane, but as the piece was not printed, I could not tell whether it had any resemblance to ours of the same name; what most delighted the people was a battle upon the stage, which lasted nearly a quarter of an hour with unremitted ardour, and concluded with the slaughter of eight or ten men left dead upon the stage. All Italian actors, I am told, are very bad, because dramatic performances are not the taste of the upper ranks, who relish and encourage nothing but the opera. These were called superlatively bad; they had much less action than I expected.

Comments: Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a British editor, letter writer and diarist, known for her close association with Horace Walpole. Her published journals and correspondence include many theatregoing references. This production of an unidentified Tamerlane play took place in Bologna on 11 November 1783.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Variétés

The Théâtre des Variétés, 1900, via Wikipedia

Source: Arnold Bennett, ‘The Variétés’ in Paris Nights, and Other Impressions of Places and People (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 13-20

Text: The filth and the paltry shabbiness of the entrance to the theatre amounted to cynicism. Instead of uplifting by a foretaste of light and magnificence, as the entrance to a theatre should, it depressed by its neglected squalour. Twenty years earlier it might have cried urgently for cleansing and redecoration, but now it was long past crying. It had become vile. In the centre at the back sat a row of three or four officials in evening dress, prosperous clubmen with glittering rakish hats, at a distance of twenty feet, but changing as we approached them to indigent, fustian-clad ticket-clerks penned in a rickety rostrum and condemned like sandwich-men to be ridiculous in order to live. (Their appearance recalled to my mind the fact that a “front-of-the-house” inspector at the principal music-hall in France and in Europe is paid thirty sous a night.) They regarded our tickets with gestures of scorn, weariness, and cupidity. None knew better than they that these coloured scraps represented a large lovely gold coin, rare and yet plentiful, reassuring and yet transient, the price of coals, boots, nectar, and love. We came to a very narrow, low, foul, semi-circular tunnel which was occupied by hags and harpies with pink bows in their hair, and by marauding men, and by hats and cloaks and overcoats, and by a double odour of dirt and disinfectants. Along the convex side of the tunnel were a number of little doors like the doors of cells. We bought a programme from a man, yielded our wraps to two harpies, and were led away by another man. All these beings looked hungrily apprehensive, like dogs nosing along a gutter. The auditorium which was nearly full, had the same characteristics as the porch and the couloir. It was filthy, fetid, uncomfortable, and dangerous. It had the carpets of a lodging-house of the ‘seventies, the seats of an old omnibus, the gilt and the decorated sculpture of a circus at a fair. And it was dingy! It was encrusted with dinginess!

Something seemed to be afoot on the stage: from the embittered resignation of the audience and the perfunctory nonchalance of the players, we knew that this could only be the curtain-raiser. The hour was ten minutes past nine. The principal piece was advertised to commence at nine o’clock. But the curtain-raiser was not yet finished, and after it was finished there would be the entr’acte — one of the renowned, interminable entr’actes of the Theatre des Variétés.

The Variétés is still one of the most “truly Parisian” of theatres, and has been so since long before Zola described it fully in Nana. The young bloods of Buenos Ayres and St. Petersburg still have visions of an evening at the Variétés as the superlative of intense living. Every theatre with a reputation has its “note,” and the note of the Variétés is to make a fool of its public. Its attitude to the public is that of an English provincial hotel or an English bank: “Come, and be d — d to you! Above all, do not imagine that I exist for your convenience. You exist for mine.” At the Variétés bad management is good management; slackness is a virtuous coquetterie. It would never do, thereto be prompt, clean, or honest. To make the theatre passably habitable would be ruin. Its chic would be lost if it ceased to be a Hades of discomfort and a menace to health. There is a small troupe of notorious artistes, some of whom show great talent when it occurs to them to show it; the vogue of the rest is one of the innumerable mysteries which abound in theatrical life. It is axiomatic that they are all witty, and that whatever lines they enunciate thereby become witty. They are simply side-splitting as Sydney Smith was simply side-splitting when he asked for the potatoes to be passed. Also the manager of the theatre always wears an old straw hat, summer and winter. He is the wearer of an eternal battered straw hat, who incidentally manages a theatre. You go along the boulevard, and you happen to see that straw hat emerging from the theatre. And by the strange potency of the hat you will be obliged to say to the next acquaintance you meet: “I’ve just seen Samuel in his straw hat.” And the thought in your mind and in the mind of your acquaintance will be that you are getting very near the heart of Paris.

Beyond question the troupe of favourites considers itself to be the real centre of Paris, and, therefore, of civilisation. Practically the entire Press, either by good nature, stupidity, snobbishness, or simple cash transactions, takes part in the vast make-believe that the troupe is conferring a favour on civilisation by consenting to be alive. And the troupe of course behaves accordingly. It puts its back into the evening when it thinks it will, and when it thinks it won’t, it doesn’t. “Aux Variétés on travaille quand on a le temps.” The rise of the curtain awaits the caprice of a convivial green-room. “Don’t hurry — the public is getting impatient.” Naturally, the underlings are not included in the benefits of the make-believe. “At rehearsals we may wait two hours for the principals,” a chorus- girl said to me. “But if we are five minutes late, one flings us a fine. A hundred francs a month I touch, and it has happened to me to pay thirty in fines. Someone gets all that, you know!” She went off into an impassioned description of scenes at rehearsals of a ballet, how the ballet-master, after epical outbursts, would always throw up his arms in inexpressible disgust and retire to his room, and how the women would follow him and kiss and cajole and hug him, and how then, after a majestic pause, his step could be heard slowly descending the stairs, and at last the rehearsal would resume. . . . The human interest, no doubt!

The Variétés has another rôle and justification. It is what the French call a women’s theatre. When I asked a well-known actress why the entr’actes at the Variétés were so long, she replied with her air of finding even the most bizarre phenomena quite natural: “There are several reasons. One is, so that the gentlemen may have time to write notes and to receive answers.” I did not conceal my sense of the oddness of this method of conducting a theatre, whereupon she reminded me that it was the Variétés we were talking about. She said that little by little I should understand all sorts of things.

As the principal piece progressed — it was an opérette — the apathy of the public grew more and more noticeable. They seemed to have forgotten that they were in one of the most truly Parisian of theatres, watching players whose names were household words and synonyms of wit and allurement. There was no applause, save from a claque which had carried discipline to the extreme. The favourites were evidently in one of their moods of casual ness. Either the piece had run too long or it was not going to run long enough. It was a piece brightly and jinglingly vulgar, ministering, of course, in the main, to the secret concupiscence which drives humanity forward; titillating, like most stage-spectacles, all that is base, inept, and gross in a crowd whose units are perhaps, not quite odious. A few of the performers had moments of real brilliance. But even these flashes did not stir the public, whose characteristic was stolidity. A public which, having regard to the conditions of the particular theatre, necessarily consisted of simple snobbish gulls whose creed is whatever they read or hear, with an admixture of foreigners, provincials, adventurers, and persons who, having no illusions, go to the Variétés because they have been to everything else and must go somewhere! The first half-dozen rows of the stalls were reserved for males: a custom which at the Variétés has survived from a more barbaric age, as the custom of the finger-bowl has survived in the repasts of the polite. The self-satisfied and self-conscious occupants of these rows seemed to summarise and illustrate all the various masculine stupidity of a great and proud city. To counterbalance this preponderance of the male, I could glimpse, behind the lath grilles of the cages called baignoires, the forms of women (each guarded) who I hope were incomparable. The sight of these grilles at once sent the mind to the seraglio, and the House of Commons, and other fastnesses of Orientalism.

The evening was interminable, not for me alone, but obviously for the majority of the audience. Impossible to describe the dull fortitude of the audience without being accused of wilful exaggeration! Only in the entr’actes, in the amplitude and dubious mystery of the entr’actes, did the audience arouse itself into the semblance of vivacity. There was but little complaining. Were we not at the Variétés? At the Variétés, to suffer was part of the entertainment. The French public is a public which accepts all in Christian meekness — all! It knows that it exists for the convenience of the bureaucracy and the theatres. It covers its cowardice under a mantle of philosophy and politeness. Its fierce protest is a shrug. “Que voulez-vous? C’est comme ça.

At last, at nearly half after midnight, we came forth, bitterly depressed, as usual, by the deep consciousness of futile waste. I could see, in my pre occupation, the whole organism of the Variétés, which is only the essence of the French theatre. A few artistes and a financier or so at the core, wilful, corrupt, self-indulgent, spoiled, venal, enormously unbusinesslike, incredibly cynical, luxurious in the midst of a crowd of miserable parasites and menials; creating for themselves, out of electric globes, and newspapers, and posters, and photographs, and the inexhaustible simplicity and sexuality of the public, a legend of artistic greatness. They make a frame, and hang a curtain in front of it, and put footlights beneath; and lo! the capricious manoeuvres of these mortals become the sacred, authoritative functioning of an institution! It was raining. The boulevard was a mirror. And along the reflecting surface of this mirror cab after cab, hundreds of cabs, rolled swiftly. Dozens and dozens were empty, and had no goal; but none would stop. They all went ruthlessly by with offensive gestures of disdain. Strangers cannot believe that when a Paris cabman without a fare re fuses to stop on a wet night, it is not because he is hoping for a client in richer furs, or because he is going to the stables, or because he has earned enough that night, or because he has an urgent appointment with his enchantress — but simply from malice. Nevertheless this is a psychological fact which any experienced Parisian will confirm. On a wet night the cabman revenges himself upon the bourgeoisie, though the base satisfaction may cost him money. As we waited, with many other princes of the earth who could afford to throw away a whole louis for a few hours’ relaxation, as we waited vainly in the wet for a cabman who would condescend, I could savour only one sensation — that of exasperating tedium completely achieved.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist and playwright. He lived in Paris from 1902 to 1912. The Théâtre des Variétés is a theatre in Montmartre, Paris, and features in the opening chapters of Emile Zola’s novel Nana.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At Home and Abroad

Rachel as Racine’s Phèdre, via Wikipedia

Source: Margaret Fuller Ossoli (ed. Arthur B. Fuller), At Home and Abroad; or, Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (New York: The Tribune Association, 1869 [orig. pub. 1956]), pp. 188-190

Productions: J.W. Marston, The Patrician’s Daughter, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 1848, and Jean Racine, Phèdre, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1848

Text: To turn to something a little gayer, – the embroidery on this tattered coat of civilized life, – I went into only two theatres; one the Old Drury, once the scene of great glories, now of execrable music and more execrable acting. If anything can be invented more excruciating than an English opera, such as was the fashion at the time I was in London, I am sure no sin of mine deserves the punishment of bearing it.

At the Sadler’s Wells theatre I saw a play which I had much admired in reading it, but found still better in actual representation; indeed, it seems to me there can be no better acting play: this is “The Patrician’s Daughter,” by J.W. Marston. The movement is rapid, yet clear and free; the dialogue natural, dignified, and flowing; the characters marked with few, but distinct strokes. Where the tone of discourse rises with manly sentiment or passion, the audience applauded with bursts of generous feeling that gave me great pleasure, for this play is one that, in its scope and meaning, marks the new era in England; it is full of an experience which is inevitable to a man of talent there, and is harbinger of the day when the noblest commoner shall be the only noble possible in England.

But how different all this acting to what I find in France! Here the theatre is living; you see something really good, and good throughout. Not one touch of that stage strut and vulgar bombast of tone, which the English actor fancies indispensable to scenic illusion, is tolerated here. For the first time in my life I saw something represented in a style uniformly good, and should have found sufficient proof, if I had needed any, that all men will prefer what is good to what is bad, if only a fair opportunity for choice be allowed. When I came here, my first thought was to go and see Mademoiselle Rachel. I was sure that in her I should find a true genius, absolutely the diamond, and so it proved. I went to see her seven or eight times, always in parts that required great force of soul and purity of taste even to conceive them, and only once had reason to find fault with her. On one single occasion I saw her violate the harmony of the character to produce effect at a particular moment; but almost invariably I found her a true artist, worthy Greece, and worthy at many moments to have her conceptions immortalized in marble.

Her range even in high tragedy is limited. She can only express the darker passions, and grief in its most desolate aspects. Nature has not gifted her with those softer and more flowery attributes that lend to pathos its utmost tenderness. She does not melt to tears, or calm or elevate the heart by the presence of that tragic beauty that needs all the assaults of Fate to make it show its immortal sweetness. Her noblest aspect is when sometimes she expresses truth in some severe shape, and rises, simple and austere, above the mixed elements around her. On the dark side, she is very great in hatred and revenge. I admired her more in Phèdre than in any other part in which I saw her. The guilty love inspired by the hatred of a goddess was expressed in all its symptoms with a force and terrible naturalness that almost suffocated the beholder. After she had taken the poison, the exhaustion and paralysis of the system, the sad, cold, calm submission to Fate, were still more grand.

I had heard so much about the power of her eye in one fixed look, and the expression she could concentrate in a single word, that the utmost results could only satisfy my expectations. It is, indeed, something magnificent to see the dark cloud live out such sparks, each one fit to deal a separate death; but it was not that I admired most in her: it was the grandeur, truth, and depth of her conception of each part, and the sustained purity with which she represented it.

For the rest, I shall write somewhere a detailed critique upon the parts in which I saw her. It is she who has made me acquainted with the true way of viewing French tragedy. I had no idea of its powers and symmetry till now, and have received from the revelation high pleasure and a crowd of thoughts.

The French language from her lips is a divine dialect; it is stripped of its national and personal peculiarities, and becomes what any language must, moulded by such a genius, – the pure music of the heart and soul. I never could remember her tone in speaking any word; it was too perfect; you had received the thought quite direct. Yet, had I never heard her speak a word, my mind would be filled by her attitudes. Nothing more graceful can be conceived, nor could the genius of sculpture surpass her management of the antique drapery.

She has no beauty except in the intellectual severity of her outline, and bears marks of age which will grow stronger every year, and make her ugly before long. Still it will be a grandiose, gypsy, or rather Sibylline ugliness, well adapted to the expression of some tragic parts. Only it seems as if she could not live long; she expends force enough upon a part to furnish out a dozen common lives.

Though the French tragedy is well acted throughout, yet unhappily there is no male actor now with a spark of fire, and these men seem the meanest pigmies by the side of Rachel; — so on the scene, beside the tragedy intended by the author, you see also that common tragedy, a woman of genius who throws away her precious heart, lives and dies for one unworthy of her. In parts this effect is productive of too much pain. I saw Rachel one night with her brother and sister. The sister imitated her so closely that you could not help seeing she had a manner, and an imitable manner. Her brother was in the play her lover, —a wretched automaton, and presenting the most unhappy family likeness to herself. Since then I have hardly cared to go and see her. We could wish with geniuses, as with the Phoenix, to see only one of the family at a time.

Comments: Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850), commonly known as Margaret Fuller, was an American feminist and journalist, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She travelled to Europe in 1846 for the New York Tribune, meeting in Italy her partner, the revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. John Westland Marston was a British poet and dramatist. Rachel (Elisa Félix) (1820-1858) was one of the great stars of the Comédie-Française, known especially for her performances in classical roles, including Racine‘s Phèdre. her sister Lia Félix was an actress and presumably the sister referred to here. Her brother was Raphael Félix.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Diary in the East During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales

The Khedivial Opera House, Cairo, in 1869, via Wikipedia

Source: William Howard Russell, A Diary in the East During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1869), pp. 114-116

Text: After dinner there was a performance at the theatre, to which the Prince and Princess and suite went. The Viceroy received them at the opera-house, and sat with them during the performance. It was not a theatre paré, but all the officers of state were present, and the house was tolerably well filled. In the pit there was an audience, most of them wearing the fez, a few the Coptic turban, others dressed in European fashion; no ladies. The boxes presented little to distinguish them, but for the intrusion of the inevitable tarboosh, and the quaint head-dress and faces of the negro servitors. Four boxes were set apart for the suite. Directly opposite the Prince and Princess were two large boxes, next the stage, in front of which was a lattice-work, from top to bottom, close and fine — so close, indeed, as to render it impossible for a searching opera-glass to pierce its mysteries. These boxes were not empty, for a certain variation of colour in the background, and a play of bright hues inside, showed that the ladies of the harem, nearly invisible to the outer world, were inside seeing everything. Was it because a gap at the lattice-work allowed a curious stranger to get a glimpse of a face within, that an envious mat was suddenly thrust into it by a black-faced, beardless gentleman in attendance? It is said that the Viceroy is meditating a great coup. That lattice-work is some day to disappear, and the ladies of the court are to sit unveiled in the presence of the people. But that day, from all I can hear, must be long distant. The pieces — “Le Serment d’Horace” and “Contributions Indirectes” — imported from the Palais Royal, seemed not unsuited to the Cairo audience. They took the points, laughed at the jokes, applauded the morceaux when the Viceroy deigned to nod; and if there was a little broadness of tone in dialogue and acting, there was certainly nothing of the wantonness of undress which we see at home in Christmas pantomimes. The theatre is about the size of the Haymarket. There is a café attached to it, a restaurant, a bouquetière, bills of the play, and a saloon where smokers congregate between the acts. And when you go out into the street, there is the fellah lying on the bare earth, wrapped in his cloak, and the wild dogs baying the moon, and the police calling out the Arab watchwords of the night.

Comments: William Howard Russell (1820-1907) was an Irish war reporter, famed for his dispatches from the Crimean War. In 1869 he accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward II and Queen Alexandra) on a visit to Egypt, which he covered in The Times and his subsequent book A Diary in the East. The plays they saw at the Khedivial Opera House were Henri Murger‘s Le Serment d’Horace and Les contributions indirectes by Henri Thiéry and Hippolyte Cogniard. The opera house had opened only recently (November 1869), having been built to mark the opening of the Suez Canal.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust