A Visit to Charles Dickens

Source: Hans Christian Andersen, ‘A Visit to Charles Dickens’, Temple Bar, vol. 31, 1871, pp. 38-40

Production: William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857

Text: Respecting the mise en scène — and I must say even to exaggeration — one may obtain an idea in London by the grand and fantastic splendour with which Shakespeare’s plays were placed on the stage by Charles Kean. Kean, the son of the celebrated actor, but not comparable to his father in genius, had the genuine merit to have applied real talent and profound historical studies in order to produce the plays of Shakespeare in such a style as was never before witnessed, and would never have been conceived by the poet himself. He also adhered to the original with a pious fidelity heretofore unknown. In former times, managers had no scruples about omitting the Fool in ‘King Lear,’ one of the most important figures in the chief tragic group. Dickens told me that Macready had been the first to restore this essential character. At the time of my visit people were thronging to see the first representation of the ‘Tempest,’ which had been placed on the stage after innumerable rehearsals, and at an immense outlay. The theatre was crowded. The theatre is not large, and it is quite wonderful what human will and genius have been enabled to accomplish. Painter and machinist had perfectly caught the spirit of the piece: the mise en scène seemed inspired by the fancy of Shakespeare himself. During the overture, the music of which expresses the storm with an accompaniment of roaring thunder, shrieks and cries were heard from within. The whole prelude was thus given before the raising of the curtain. When this took place heavy billows came rolling against the footlights. The whole stage was a tumultuous sea: a large vessel was tossed to and fro — it occupied the larger part of the scene; sailors and passengers ran confusedly about; cries of agony and anguish resounded; the masts fell, and soon the vessel itself disappeared in the foaming brine. Dickens told me, that the ship was made of inflated air-tight canvas, the air being let out of which the entire huge body collapses at once, and is hidden by the waves, which were half the height of the scene.

The first appearance of Ariel was poetically beautiful to a high degree: as Prospero summoned him a shooting star fell from heaven; it touched the grass, it shone in blue and green flames, and rose suddenly before us as Ariel’s beautiful and angel-like form; he stood there in white garments, with wings from his shoulders down to the ground; it was as if he and the starry meteor had floated through heaven at the same moment. Every appearance of Ariel was different, and all were beautiful: now he appeared clinging by his hand to the tendrils of a vine, now floating across the scene by some mechanism not easy to be discovered. No cord or rod was visible, yet something of this nature upbore him in his attitude of flight. In one act we saw a bleak winter landscape, changing gradually at the outbreak of sunbeams to an aspect of the utmost luxuriance; the trees became arrayed in leaves, flowers, and fruit; the springs gushed abundantly, and water-nymphs, light as a swan’s feathers upon the billows, danced down the foaming waterfalls. In another scene Olympus shone forth with all its classic beauty; the aerial background was filled with hovering genii. Juno came borne along in her chariot by peacocks, whose trains glistened with radiance. The signs of the zodiac moved in procession: the entire scene was a perfect kaleidoscope phantasmagoria. The splendour of a single act would have drawn crowded houses to witness even the poorest play, and it was lavished upon five acts of Shakespeare — it was too much! Yes! we even sailed with the Ares in the gliding boat, and saw heir thoughts embodied. The whole background moved by — landscape succeeded landscape — a complete moving panorama.

The final scene was undeniably the most effective. It represented an open sea, rippled by the wind. Prospero, who is quitting his island, stood in the stern of the vessel, which moved from the background towards the foot-lights. The sails swelled, and when the parting epilogue had been spoken the ship glided slowly behind the side-scenes, and Ariel appeared, floating over the surface of the water and wafting his parting farewell. All the light fell upon him, insomuch that he, isolated by the electric ray, shed a meteoric splendour over the scene; a beautiful rainbow beamed away from him over the watery mirror. The moon that had shone brightly faded in the sunny radiance, and the rainbow glory beaming from him in the moment of departure. The enchanted public forgave the long intervals between the acts, and the interminable duration of the piece; which lasted on the first representation from 7 to 12.30. Everything had been done that scenery and mise en scene could effect; and yet, after seeing all we felt overwhelmed, weary, and empty. Shakespeare himself was sacrificed to the lust of the eye. Bold poetry became petrified into prosaic illustration. The living word evaporated, and the nectarean food was forgotten in the golden dish in which it was served up.

None of the actors appeared to me remarkable as dramatic artists, except the representation of Caliban. Ariel, which was performed by a lady, was a lovely figure; in naming these I have mentioned the only two of any importance. Kean declaimed in the style of a preacher, and his organ was not fine. I should more enjoy a representation of Shakespeare’s in a wooden theatre than here, where the play was lost in the properties.

Comments: Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author, best known for his fairy tales. He visited Charles Dickens at the latter’s home in Gad’s Hill, Kent over June-July 1857, greatly outstaying his welcome, to the annoyance of Dickens’s family. He visited London with Dickens on a number of occasions, though it is not absolutely certain that Dickens himself was present at this production of The Tempest at the Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857. Charles Kean was the son of the actor Edmund Kean, but inherited few of his father’s gifts as an actor. He was actor-manager at the Princess’s Theatre in London 1851-1859. Kean stressed painstaking, supposed historical accuracy in sets and costumes for his Shakespeare productions, combined with elaborate scenic effects (requiring over 140 stagehands). With scene changes between the acts, the entire production of The Tempest lasted for nearly five hours, despite substantial cuts to the text. Kean played Prospero, Kate Terry was Ariel, and John Ryder played Caliban.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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