The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 56-59

Production: Charles Reade/Tom Taylor, Masks and Faces, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 27 November 1852

Text: November 27. – The new play at the HAYMARKET wants the scope and proportions of a regular English comedy, being in outline and structure of a French cast; but in character it is English, in sentiment thoroughly so, and its language and expression, whether of seriousness or humour, have the tone at once easy and earnest which truth gives to scholarship and wit.

The acting, too, is unusually good. There is a poor poet who doubles the scanty callings of painter and player, and whom Goldsmith could not have better described, or Leslie painted, than Mr. Webster acts him. The delicacy and strength of this performance took us by surprise. The humour and pathos closely neighbouring each other, smiles playing about the tears, and the mirth always trembling into sadness, belonged to most real art. And it was full of minute touches which showed the discrimination of the actor. For instance – that absurd air of helplessness, which the habit of incessant failure gives to a man. The poor starving author cannot hold even a couple of his own rejected tragedies in his hands without dropping one of them, nor pick up the straggler till its companion has tumbled after it.

The title of the comedy is ‘Masks and Faces, or Before and Behind the Curtain.’ Its heroine is Garrick’s favourite, Peg Woffington; whose attractive sprightliness, spirited independence, good understanding, and thoroughly good nature, distinguished her so favourably among the dames of the English theatre in the old days of the Sir Harry Wildairs and Lady Betty Modishes, and while yet the Iphigenias wore cherry-coloured silk over their large hoop petticoats. The drift of the little comedy is to show the good heart of the actress shining out through the disadvantage of her position and her calling, and rebuking the better fortune of those who have to struggle with no such temptations. There appears to be just now a great run upon such subjects with our French neighbours. Shut out by the censorship from most topics that trench upon the real world, French playwrights have betaken themselves in despair to the world of unreality, and now find their most popular subjects behind the scenes. They have just invented a model English actor at the Français, who by all sorts of nobility and propriety of conduct breaks down the most inveterate prejudices of caste; and at the Variétés they have reproduced a scamp of an actor of the infamous days of the Regency, who turns out to be after all the most interesting and fine-hearted rogue conceivable. In short, the Parisian spirit of the day, in these matters, is pretty much expressed in what one of our own wits used to be fond of contrasting in the fortunes of the two Duchesses of Bolton. The poor high-born lady, educated in solitude with choice of all good books, with a saintlike governess, and fairly crammed with virtue – what did it all come to? her husband despised her and the public laughed at her. Whereas the frank and fearless Polly, bred in an alehouse and produced on the stage, obtained not only wealth and title, but found the way to be esteemed, so that her husband respected and loved her, as the public had done before him.

The authors of ‘Masks and Faces’ (for there are two, Mr. Tom Taylor and Mr. Charles Reade) do not quite fall into this vein, however. They rather follow the example of the enthusiastic bishop, who, on hearing an actress of doubtful reputation sing divinely at an Oratorio, suddenly and loudly cried out, “Woman, thy sins be forgiven thee!” They do not suppress the sins of Mrs. Woffington, in the act of exhibiting what virtues as well as sorrows neighboured them; and, while they represent her with a touching sense of her own degradation, they have yet the courage to show her accepted for her virtues by the innocent and pure, and not disqualified by her vices to put conventional morality to shame. In a word, it is a very manly and right-minded little comedy; with matter of just reflection in it, as well as much mirth and amusement.

That is a charming scene where Peg visits the poor poet in his garret, while his ailing wife and starving children are sadly interrupting the flow of its comic muse. Nothing here was lost in Mr. Webster’s hands — the angry fretfulness followed by instant remorse, the efforts of self-restraint which are but efforts in vain, the energy that fitfully breaks out and then pitifully breaks down, and the final loss of hope, even of faith in a better providence which is to set right all that misery and wrong – the picture was complete, and set forth with its immemorial Grub-street appendages of no shirt and ragged but ample ruffles. An excellent touch, too, it was in this scene, when the poor, patient, sickly wife, nicely looked and played by Mrs. Leigh Murray, after rebuking her husband for his little outbreak of distrust in Providence, cannot help showing her own little jealousies and fellow-actress’s distrust of Mrs. Woffington. But Peg plays the part of Providence in the miserable garret, and in doing it Mrs. Stirling threw off all her too conscious airs and was really hearty and delightful. She gave the pathetic passages with genuine feeling, the mirthful with cordial enjoyment; and several heightening touches in both marked the personal sympathy and emotion with which the character appeared to have affected her.

The critics introduced are poor enough, and this part of the piece is here and there too long. Mr. Bland, moreover, who played Quin, exaggerated a mistake for which the writers had given him too much excuse, and made a mere loud, coarse, vulgar epicure of him. Quin was a gentleman and a man of wit. We remember him always as the patron as well as friend of the poet Thomson, and as the author of some of the very best things on record. Generally, however, the acting was very good. There was a little sketch of old Colley Cibber, by Mr. Lambert, particularly worth mention as observant and faithful.

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. Tom Taylor and Charles Reade‘s 1852 Masks and Faces, which tells of the Irish actress Peg Woffington (1720-1760), was a great popular success and led Reade to produce his novel Peg Woffington the following year. Those appearing in the Haymarket Theatre production included Benjamin Nottingham Webster (as Triplet), Elizabeth Leigh Murray (Mrs Triplet), Mary Anne ‘Fanny’ Stirling (Peg), James Bland (Quin) and Mr Lambert (Cibber).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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