A Victorian Playgoer

The new Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1897, via Wikipedia

Source: Kate Terry Gielgud (ed. Muriel St Claire Byrne), A Victorian Playgoer (London: Heinemann, 1980), pp. 51-52

Production: Gilbert Parker, The Seats of the Mighty, Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 28 April 1897

Text: London has a new theatre, and a very fine one, and Mr. Tree and all those who have worked in its production deserve the heartiest congratulations. No pains have been spared to ensure good views of the stage throughout, and to make the front of the house comfortable. The theatre is very wide and somewhat shallow in proportion, with the circles pitched very high. and the effect is extremely good.

Mrs. Tree in the gorgeous dress of a lady of Louis XV’s Court stepped before the curtains and opened proceedings by delivering – very nervously – an ode especially composed by the Poet Laureate. It was very elaborate and patriotic but it really had not much to do with the theatre, and was not a brilliant piece of versification. Then came Miss Clara Butt and a choir to give a staccato rendering of the National Anthem, which took a very long time, and then, these forms and ceremonies being at an end we could settle down to enjoy and criticise the picture that Mr. Tree had thought fit to place first in this fine frame.

Since every one in the theatre-going world will inevitably go and see the new theatre, it cannot be wondered at that Mr. Tree should at first ‘work off’ a play that has not any very great individual attraction, keeping for later pieces of tho more importance. To be candid, Mr. Parker’s play is a bit tedious. The long arm of stage coincidence stretches so abnormally far, the play bears such evident signs of compression, events are piled together – with first rate melodramatic situations – but they are bewilderingly compressed without being concise, there are rough edges and threads picked up from nowhere in particular. It is a novelist’s play, the points are almost too dramatic for the stage except as lending themselves to triumphs of stage management, most impressive and praiseworthy on a previously untried field (excuse enough for the long waits, which, by the way, mattered nothing last night, as everyone wanted to look about the house and the audience.)

The plot is all very involved and hard to disentangle, and it seems a pity to waste so many dramatic moments in telling so invertebrate a story, for there is much that is good. Mr. Lewis Waller has an utterly bad part, a hero with never a chance being otherwise than passively heroic; he was most dignified and sympathetic and it is always a treat to hear him speak.

Making all allowance for the nervousness, the excitement of such a first night, I still think Mr. Tree has made too elaborate a study of Doltaire. He poses too perpetually, works his effects until they lost all spontaneity and, most important, he fails altogether to my mind, in presenting the strange fascination of the man. We cannot understand the secret of his power over then and women alike. His was the most artificial part in a palpably built-up play and I thought he accentuated rather than slurred over the artificiality. Mrs. Tree looked very well and acquitted herself well too, in no easy task. Her part begins with great promise; she has one good scene of cajolery and subsequent fury when Doltaire repels her advances, and then she drops out of the play – one of the ragged ends.

Miss Kate Rorke showed infinite tact and earnestness and made up in many ways for a a certain youthfulness that she lacks now. Her figure seemed the more matronly in juxtaposition with Mrs. Tree’s slight and graceful one, but the contrasts of art and simplicity, diplomacy and love. were at the same time heightened thereby.

It was a memorable evening altogether and one I should have been very sorry to miss; and if as an actor Mr. Tree hardly came up to his usual standard, as manager he excelled himself.

Comments: Kate Terry Gielgud (1868–1958) was the daughter of actress Kate Terry, niece of Ellen Terry, and the mother of the actor John Gielgud. Between 1892 and 1903 she wrote accounts of her visits to the London theatre as letters to an invalid friend who was unable to visit the theatre. The Her Majesty’s Theatre was built on the site of three earlier theatres. It was owned and managed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also made the theatre his home. The opening play was an adaptation by Gilbert Parker of his popular novel The Seats of the Mighty, which Tree had previously presented in America in late 1896. Its subject is the British capture of Quebec under James Wolfe. The poet laureate was Alfred Austin.

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