Memoirs of John Quincy Adams

‘Edmund Kean as Richard III in “Richard III”‘.engraving, University of Illinois Digital Collections, https://digital.library.illinois.edu/items/85885f10-4e7d-0134-1db1-0050569601ca-9

Source: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874-77), vol. 3, pp. 466-467

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Colley Cibber), Richard III and Harlequin Horner, or, The Christmas pie, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 3 February 1817

Text: February 3rd [1817] … We went to Drury Lane, and saw “Richard the Third,” with the pantomime of “Harlequin Horner,” with a clown issuing from the Christmas pie. Kean performed Richard. The play is not exactly Shakspeare’s. Colley Cibber brought it out improved and amended, and John Kemble has improved upon it again. More than half the original tragedy, including many of the finest scenes, is discarded. Two or three scenes from the third part of Henry the Sixth are transferred to this play. There are modern additions, not well adapted to Shakspeare’s [sic] style, and his language itself is often altered, and seldom for the better. As it is, however, it has constantly been from Cibber’s time one of the standing favorites of the public on the English stage, and the character of Richard is one of the trying tests of their greatest tragic actors. I never saw it performed but once before, and that was at Boston in 1794. It is by many of Kean’s admirers considered as his greatest part; but his performance this night in some degree disappointed me. There is too much of rant in his violence, and not smoothness enough in his hypocrisy. He has a uniform fashion of traversing the stage from one side to the other when he has said a good thing, and then looks as if he was walking for a wager. At other times, he runs off from the stage with the gait of a running footman. In the passages of high passion he loses all distinct articulation and it is impossible to understand what he says. But he has much very good subsidiary pantomime, which is perhaps the first talent of a first-rate actor. He has a most keen and piercing eye, a great command and expression of countenance, and some transitions of voice of very striking effect. All the other male performers were indifferent, and the women below mediocrity. The two children (girls) were very good. The house was crowded, and the applause of Kean incessant during the tragedy. The fight between Richard and Richmond was skilful and vigorous. Kean always contrives to make a claptrap of his dying scenes. The clapping at his death continued five minutes long. The Duke and Duchess and Princess Sophia of Gloucester were present, and received with great applause. At their entrance, “God save the King” was performed by the orchestra, and sung by part of the players, the audience all standing.

Comments: John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829). In 1817, at the time of this diary entry, he was the US ambassador to Britain, before becoming Secretary of State to James Monroe. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) played Gloucester in a version of Shakespeare’s Richard III heavily rewritten by Colley Cibber. Harlequin Horner; or, Christmas Pie was a popular pantomime piece, first produced at Drury Lane in 1816.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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