The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 92-99

Production: William Shakespeare (and George Wilkins?), Pericles, Sadler’s Wells, London, 21 October 1854

Text: October 21. [1854] — ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre,’ that Eastern romance upon which Shakespeare first tried his power as a dramatist, and which he may have re-adapted to the stage even while yet a youth at Stratford, has been produced at SADLER’S WELLS by Mr. Phelps, with the care due to a work especially of interest to all students of Shakespeare, and with the splendour proper to an Eastern spectacle.

The story was an old one; there is a version of it even in Anglo-Saxon. Gower had made it the longest story in his ‘Confessio Amantis,’ and the one told with the greatest care; and the dramatist in using it made use of Gower. The story was a popular one of an Eastern prince whose life is spent upon a sea of trouble. Everywhere he is pursued by misfortune. He seeks a beautiful wife at the risk of death, through the good old Eastern plan of earning her by answering a riddle. She proves a miracle of lust. He flies from her, and is pursued by the strong wrath of her father. To avoid this he is forced to become an exile from his house and people. He sails to Tharsus, where he brings liberal relief to a great famine, and is hailed as a saviour; but to Tharsus he is pursued by warnings of the coming wrath of his great enemy. Again he becomes a fugitive across the sea. The sea is pitiless and tosses him from coast to coast until it throws him ashore, the only man saved from the wreck of his vessel near Pentapolis. But in Pentapolis reigns a good king, whose daughter — still in the true fashion of a story book — is to be courted by a tourney between rival princes. Pericles would take part in such ambition, and the sea casts him up a suit of armour. He strives, and is victor. He excels all in the tourney, in the song, and in the dance; the king is generous and the daughter kind. But the shadow of his evil fate is still over Pericles. He distrusts a thing” so strange as happy fortune, and thinks of it only “’tis the king’s subtlety to have my life.” Fortune is, however, for once really on his side. He marries the Princess Thaisa, and, being afterwards informed that his great enemy is dead and that his own subjects rebel against his continued absence, he sets sail with her from Tyre.

The good gifts seem, however, only to have been granted by Fortune that she might increase his wretchedness tenfold by taking them away. The sea again “washes heaven and hell” when his ship is fairly launched upon it, and in a storm so terrible that

“the seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard,

the nurse brings on deck to Pericles a new-born infant, with the tidings that its mother Thaisa is dead. The sailors, believing that a corpse on board maintains the storm about the ship, demand that the dead queen be thrown into the sea. Most wretched queen! mourns the more wretched prince,

“A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire: the unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow’d to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin’d, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.”

Being at this time near Tharsus, however, and remembering that Tharsus owes to him a debt of gratitude, Pericles makes for Tharsus, in order that he may place his infant with the least possible delay upon sure ground and under tender nursing.

The daughter there grows up under her father’s evil star. “This world to me,” she says, “is like a lasting storm, whirring me from my friends.” The Queen of Tharsus becomes jealous and resolves to murder her. It is by the sea-shore that the deed is to be done. When Pericles comes for his child her tomb is shown to him, and under this last woe his mind breaks down. He puts to sea again with his wrecked spirit, and, though the sea again afflicts him with its storms, he rides them out.

I have not told the familiar story thus far for the sake of telling it, but for the sake of showing in the most convenient way what is really the true spirit of the play. At this point of the tale the fortune of Pericles suddenly changes. A storm of unexpected happiness breaks with immense force upon him. The sea and the tomb seem to give up their dead, and from the lowest depths of prostration the spirit of the Prince is exalted to the topmost height, in scenes which form most worthily the climax of the drama. “0 Helicanus,” he then cries,

“O Helicanus, strike me, honoured sir;
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys, rushing upon me,
O’erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness.”

In telling such a story as this Shakespeare felt, and, young as he may have been, his judgment decided rightly, that it should be shown distinctly as a tale such as

“Hath been sung at festivals,
On Ember eves and holy ales;”

and he therefore brought forward Gower himself very much in the character of an Eastern storyteller to begin the narrative and to carry it on to the end, subject to the large interruption of five acts of dramatic illustration. A tale was being told; every person was to feel that, although much of it would be told to the eye. But in the revival of the play Mr. Phelps was left to choose between two difficulties. The omission of Gower would be a loss to the play, in an artistic sense, yet the introduction of Gower before every act would very probably endanger its effect in a theatrical sense, unless the part were spoken by an actor of unusual power. The former plan was taken; and in adding to certain scenes in the drama passages of his own writing, strictly confined to the explanation of those parts of the story which Shakespeare represents Gower as narrating between the acts, Mr. Phelps may have used his best judgment as a manager. Certainly, unless he could have been himself the Gower as well as the Pericles of the piece, the frequent introduction of a story-telling gentleman in a long coat and long curls would have been an extremely hazardous experiment, even before such an earnest audience as that at Sadler’s Wells.

The change did inevitably, to a certain extent, disturb the poetical effect of the story; but assuming its necessity, it was effected modestly and well. The other changes also were in no case superfluous, and were made with considerable judgment. The two scenes at Mitylene, which present Marina pure as an ermine which no filth can touch, were compressed into one; and although the plot of the drama was not compromised by a false delicacy, there remained not a syllable at which true delicacy could have conceived offence. The calling of Blount and his Mistress was covered in the pure language of Marina with so hearty a contempt, that the scene was really one in which the purest minds might be those which would take the most especial pleasure.

The conception of the character of Pericles by Mr. Phelps seemed to accord exactly with the view just taken of the play. He was the Prince pursued by evil fate. A melancholy that could not be shaken off oppressed him even in the midst of the gay court of King Simonides, and the hand of Thaisa was received with only the rapture of a love that dared not feel assured of its good fortune. Mr. Phelps represented the Prince sinking gradually under the successive blows of fate, with an unostentatious truthfulness; but in that one scene which calls forth all the strength of the artist, the recognition of Marina and the sudden lifting of the Prince’s bruised and fallen spirit to an ecstacy of joy, there was an opportunity for one of the most effective displays of the power of an actor that the stage, as it now is, affords. With immense energy, yet with a true feeling for the pathos of the situation that had the most genuine effect, Mr. Phelps achieved in this passage a triumph marked by plaudit after plaudit. They do not applaud rant at Sadler’s Wells. The scene was presented truly by the actor and felt fully by his audience.

The youthful voice and person, and the quiet acting of Miss Edith Heraud, who made her début as Marina, greatly helped to set forth the beauty of that scene. The other parts had also been judiciously allotted, so that each actor did what he or she was best able to do, and did it up to the full measure of the ability of each. Miss Cooper gave much effect to the scene of the recovery of Thaisa, which was not less well felt by those who provided the appointments of the stage, and who marked that portion of the drama by many delicacies of detail.

Of the scenery indeed it is to be said that so much splendour of decoration is rarely governed by so pure a taste. The play, of which the text is instability of fortune, has its characteristic place of action on the sea. Pericles is perpetually shown (literally as well as metaphorically) tempest-tost, or in the immediate vicinity of the treacherous waters; and this idea is most happily enforced at Sadler’s Wells by scene-painter and machinist. They reproduce the rolling of the billows and the whistling of the winds when Pericles lies senseless, a wrecked man on a shore. When he is shown on board ship in the storm during the birth of Marina, the ship tosses vigorously. When he sails at last to the temple of Diana of the Ephesians, rowers take their places on their banks, the vessel seems to glide along the coast, an admirably-painted panorama slides before the eye, and the whole theatre seems to be in the course of actual transportation to the temple at Ephesus, which is the crowning scenic glory of the play. The dresses, too, are brilliant. As beseems an Eastern story, the events all pass among princes. Now the spectator has a scene presented to him occupied by characters who appear to have stepped out of a Greek vase; and presently he looks into an Assyrian palace and sees figures that have come to life and colour from the stones of Nineveh. There are noble banquets and glittering processions, and in the banquet-hall of King Simonides there is a dance which is a marvel of glitter, combinations of colour, and quaint picturesque effect. There are splendid trains of courtiers, there are shining rows of vestal virgins, and there is Diana herself in the sky.

We are told that the play of ‘Pericles’ enjoyed, for its own sake, when it first appeared, a run of popularity that excited the surprise and envy of some playwrights, and became almost proverbial. It ceased to be acted in the days of Queen Anne; and whether it would attract now as a mere acted play, in spite of the slight put upon it by our fathers and grandfathers, it is impossible to say, since the ‘Pericles’ of Sadler’s Wells may be said to succeed only because it is a spectacle.

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. Morley saw actor-manager Samuel Phelps‘ production of Pericles at Sadler’s Wells on 21 October 1854, the play’s first staging since the seventeenth century (aside from George Lillo‘s 1738 adaptation Marina). The role of Gower was cut as well as some scenes expected to cause offence, as indicated by Morley, and some new scenes added. Of the named performers, Phelps played Pericles, Edith Heraud was Marina and Fanny Cooper was Thaisa.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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