United Kingdom

Remarks on Our Theatres

Source: Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Remarks on Our Theatres’, The Bee no. 1, 6 October 1759, reproduced in Essays and The Bee (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1820), pp. 11-17

Production: Henry Fielding, The Miser, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 September 1759 and Henry Fielding, The Mock Doctor, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 25 September 1759

Text: Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub-street is preparing its advice to the managers; we shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor’s legs, and another’s eye-brows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes, and shall have our lightest pleasures commented upon by didactic dulness. We shall, it is feared, be told, that Garrick is a fine actor, but then, as a manager, so avaricious! That Palmer is a most surprising genius, and Holland likely to do well in a particular cast of character. We shall have them giving Shuter instructions to amuse us by rule, and deploring over the ruins of desolated majesty at Covent-Garden. As I love to be advising too, for advice is easily given, and bears a show of wisdom and superiority, I must be permitted to offer a few observations upon our theatres and actors, without, on this trivial occasion, throwing my thoughts into the formality of method.

There is something in the deportment of all our players infinitely more stiff and formal than among the actors of other nations. Their action sits uneasy upon them; for as the English use very little gesture in ordinary conversation, our English-bred actors are obliged to supply stage gestures by their imagination alone. A French comedian finds proper models of action in every company and in every coffee house he enters. An Englishman is obliged to take his models from the stage itself; he is obliged to imitate nature from an imitation of nature. I know of no set of men more likely to be improved by travelling than those of the theatrical profession. The inhabitants of the continent are less reserved than here; they may be seen through upon a first acquaintance; such are the proper models to draw from; they are at once striking, and are found in great abundance.

Though it would he inexcuseable in a comedian to add any thing of his own to the poet’s dialogue, yet as to action he is entirely at liberty. By this he may show the fertility of his genius, the poignancy of his humour, and the exactness of his judgment; we scarcely see a coxcomb or a fool in common life that has not some peculiar oddity in his action. These peculiarities it is not in the power of words to represent, and they depend solely upon the actor. They give a relish to the humour of the poet, and make the appearance of nature more illusive; the Italians, it is true, mask some characters, and endeavour to preserve the peculiar humour by the make of the mask; but I have seen others still preserve a great fund of humour in the face without a mask; one actor, particularly, by a squint which he threw into some characters of low life, assumed a look of infinite stolidity. This, though upon reflection we might condemn, yet immediately upon representation we could not avoid being pleased with. To illustrate what I have been saying by the plays I have of late gone to see; in the Miser, which was played a few nights ago at Covent Garden, Lovegold appears through the whole in circumstances of exaggerated avarice; all the player’s action, therefore, should conspire with the poet’s design, and represent him as an epitome of penury. The French comedian, in this character, in the midst of one of his most violent passions, while he appears in an ungovernable rage, feels the demon of avarice still upon him, and stoops down to pick up a pin, which he quilts into the flap of his coat-pocket with great assiduity. Two candles are lighted up for his wedding; he flies, and turns one of them into the socket; it is, however, lighted up again; he then steals to it, and privately crams it into his pocket. The Mock-Doctor was lately played at the other house. Here again the comedian had an opportunity of heightening the ridicule by action. The French player sits in a chair with a high back, and then begins to show away by talking nonsense, which he would have thought Latin by those who he knows do not understand a syllable of the matter. At last he grows enthusiastic, enjoys the admiration of the company, tosses his legs and arms about, and in the midst of his raptures and vociferation, he and the chair fall back together. All this appears dull enough in the recital; but the gravity of Cato could not stand it in the representation. In short, there is hardly a character in comedy, to which a player of any real humour might not add strokes of vivacity that could not fail of applause. But instead of this we too often see our fine gentlemen do nothing through a whole part, but strut, and open their snuff-box; our pretty fellows sit indecently with their legs across, and our clowns pull up their breeches. These, if once or even twice repeated, might do well enough; but to see them served up in every scene argues the actor almost as barren as the character he would expose.

The magnificence of our theatres is far superior to any others in Europe, where plays only are acted. The great care our performers take in painting for a part, their exactness in all the minutiae of dress, and other little scenical proprieties, have been taken notice of by Ricoboni, a gentleman of Italy, who travelled Europe with no other design but to remark upon the stage; but there are several improprieties still continued, or lately come into fashion. As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes; this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow; for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury-lane. Our little pages also with unmeaning faces, that bear up the train of a weeping princess, and our awkward lords in waiting, take off much from her distress. Mutes of every kind divide our attention, and lessen our sensibility; but here it is entirely ridiculous, as we see them seriously employed in doing nothing. If we must have dirty-shirted guards upon the theatres, they should be taught to keep their eyes fixed on the actors, and not roll them round upon the audience, as if they were ogling the boxes.

Beauty methinks seems a requisite qualification in an actress. This seems scrupulously observed elsewhere, and for my part I could wish to see it observed at home. I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural, for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity, and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste, will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when for instance we see an actress that might act the Wapping Landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore, and while unwieldly with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger!

For the future, then, I could wish that the parts of the young or beautiful were given to performers of suitable figures; for I must own, I could rather see the stage filled with agreeable objects, though they might sometimes bungle a little, than see it crowded with withered or mis-shapen figures, be their emphasis, as I think it is called, ever so proper. The first may have the awkward appearance of new-raised troops; but in viewing the last I cannot avoid the mortification of fancying myself placed in an hospital of invalids.

Comments: Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was an Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic. The Bee was a periodical that he published himself. The Miser and The Mock Doctor were plays by Henry Fielding, both adapted from Molière. Antoine-François Riccoboni was an Italian actor whose treatise L’Art dit Théâtre was published in 1750.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Over the Water

Source: Henry Leigh, ‘Over the Water’ in Carols of Cockayne (London: J.C. Hotten, 1869), pp. 41-43

Text:
Look always on the Surrey side
For true dramatic art.
The road is long — the river wide—
But frequent busses start
From Charing Cross and Gracechurch street,
(An inexpensive ride;)
So, if you want an evening’s treat,
O seek the Surrey side.

I have been there, and still would go,
As Dr Watts observes;
Although it’s not a place, I know,
F or folks with feeble nerves.
Ah me! how many roars I’ve had —
How many tears I’ve dried —
At melodramas, good and bad.
Upon the Surrey side.

Can I forget those wicked lords,
Their voices and their calves;
The things they did upon those boards,
And never did by halves:
The peasant, brave though lowly born,
Who constantly defied
Those wicked lords with utter scorn,
Upon the Surrey side?

Can I forget those hearts of oak,
Those model British tars;
Who crack’d a skull or crack’d a joke,
Like true transpontine stars;
Who hornpip’d à la T.P. Cooke,
And sang — at least they tried —
Until the pit and gallery shook,
Upon the Surrey side?

But best of all I recollect
That maiden in distress —
So unimpeachably correct
In morals and in dress —
Who, ere the curtain fell, became
The low-born peasant’s bride:
(They nearly always end the same
Upon the Surrey side.)

I gape in Covent Garden’s walls,
I doze in Drury Lane;
I strive in the Lyceum stalls
To keep awake — in vain.
There’s nought in the dramatic way
That I can quite abide,
Except the pieces that they play
Upon the Surrey side.

Comments: Henry Sambrooke Leigh (1837–1883) was a British comic writer and author of light verse. Several of his poems are about the London theatres of his time, and some of his poems were sung to music in the music halls. The Surrey Theatre, located in Lambeth, was founded as the Royal Circus in 1782 and originally was known for equestrian performances. It became noted for its melodramas for much of the nineteenth century. Actor T.P. (Thomas) Cooke was strongly associated with melodramas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Anatomie of Abuses

Source: Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London: Richard Jones, 1583), pp. 87-92

Text: Oh blasphemy intolerable! Are filthy plays and bawdy Interludes comparable to the word of God, the food of life, and life itself? It is all one, as if they had said, Bawdry, Heathenry, Paganry, Scurrility, and Devilry itself, is equal with the word of God; or that the Devil is equivalent with the Lord.

The Lord our God has ordained his blessed word, and made it the ordinary means of our Salvation; the Devil has inferred the other, as the ordinary means of our destruction; and will they yet compare the one with the other? If he be accursed that calls light darkness and darkness light, truth falsehood, and falsehood truth, sweet sour, and sour sweet, then, a fortiori, is he accursed that says that Plays and Interludes be equivalent with Sermons. Besides this, there is no mischief which these Plays maintain not. For do they not nourish idleness? and otia dant vitia, idleness is the Mother of vice. Do they not draw the people from hearing the word of God, from godly Lectures and Sermons? For you shall have them flock thither, thick and threefold, when the Church of God shall be bare and empty; And those that will never come at Sermons will flow thither apace. The reason is, for that the number of Christ his elect is but few, and the number of the reprobate is many; the way that leads to life is narrow, and few tread that path; the way that leads to death is broad, and many find it. This shows that they are not of God, who refuse to hear his word (for he that is of God hears God his word, says our Saviour Christ) but of the Devil, whose exercises they go to visit. Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of Heathen Idolatry? Do they not induce Whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof, but mark the flocking and running to Theatres and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see Plays and Interludes; where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such kissing and bussing, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like, is used, as is wonderful to behold. Then, these goodly Pageants being done, every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse. And these be the fruits of Plays and Interludes for the most part. And whereas you say there are good Examples to be learned in them, truly so there are: if you will learn falsehood; if you will learn cozenage; if you will learn to deceive; if you will learn to play the hypocrite, to cog, lie, and falsify; if you will learn to jest, laugh, and fleer, to grin, to nod, and mow; if you will learn to play the vice, to swear, tear, and blaspheme, both Heaven and Earth: If you will learn to become a Bawd, unclean, and to devirginate Maids, to deflower honest Wives: If you will learn to murder, slay, kill, pick, steal, rob, and rove: If you will learn to rebel against Princes, to commit Treasons, to consume treasures, to practice Idleness, to sing and talk of bawdry, love and venery: If you will learn to deride, scoff, mock, and flout, to flatter and smooth: If you will learn to play the Whoremaster, the Glutton, Drunkard, or Incestuous person: If you will learn to become proud, haughty, and arrogant; and, finally, if you will learn to contemn God and all his laws, to care neither for heaven nor hell, and to commit all kind of sin and mischief, you need to go to no other school, for all these good examples may you see painted before your eyes in Interludes and Plays: wherefore that man who gives money for the maintenance of them must needs incur the damage of praemunire, that is, eternal damnation, except they repent. For the Apostle bids us beware, least we communicate with other men’s sins; and this their doing is not only to communicate with other men’s sins, and maintain evil to the destruction of themselves and many others, but also a maintaining of a great sort of idle lubbers, and buzzing Dronets, to suck up and devour the good honey, whereupon the poor bees should live.

Therefore, I beseech all players and founders of Plays and Interludes, in the bowels of Jesus Christ, as they tender the salvation of their souls, and others, to leave of that cursed kind of life, and give themselves to such honest exercises and Godly mysteries as God has commanded them in his word to get their livings withal; for who will call him a wise man, that plays the part of a fool and a vice? Who can call him a Christian, who plays the part of a devil, the sworn enemy of Christ? Who can call him a just man, that plays the part of a dissembling hypocrite? And, to be brief, who can call him a straight dealing man, who plays a Cozener’s trick? And so of all the rest. Away therefore with this so infamous an art! For go they never so brave, yet are they counted and taken but for beggars. And is it not true? Live they not upon begging of every one that comes? Are they not taken by the Laws of the Realm for rogues and vagabonds? I speak of such as travel the Countries with Plays and Interludes, making an occupation of it, and ought so to be punished, if they had their deserts. But hoping that they will be warned now at the last, I will say no more of them, beseeching them to consider what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of God, and to provoke his wrath and heavy displeasure against themselves and others; which the Lord of his mercy turn from us!

Comments: Philip Stubbes (c.1555-1610) was an English pamphleteer, best known for his 1583 pamphlet The Anatomie of Abuses. This attack on the manners and customs of the times has much information on attitudes towards the theatre, specifically the London theatres, of which The Theatre and The Curtain, two venues located close to one a other in north London, are referenced in his diatribe. It is unclear whether Stubbes ever actually visited a theatre. The spelling in the above transcription has been modernised slightly for ease of reading. It comes from a section of the pamphlet entitled ‘Of Stage-Playes and Enterludes, with their wickednesse’. Interludes were Tudor-era theatrical entertainments.

Links: 1870 reproduction at Internet Archive
Facsimile copy at the British Library
Plain text version at Oxford Text Archive

Discourse of the English Stage

Source: Richard Flecknoe, ‘Discourse of the English Stage’, reproduced in James Agate (ed.), The English Dramatic Critics: An Anthology, 1660-1932 (London: Arthur Barker, 1932), pp. 1-2, originally published in Miscellania or poems of all sorts with divers other pieces (1653)

Text: It was the happiness of the Actors of those times to have such Poets as these to instruct them, and to write for them; and no less of those Poets to have such docile and excellent Actors to Act their Playes, as a Field and Burbidge; of whom we may say, that he was a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his Part, and putting off himself with his Cloathes, as he never (not so much as in the Tyring-house) assum’d himself again until the Play was done: there being as much difference between him and one of our common Actors, as between a Ballad-singer who onely mouths it, and an excellent singer, who knows all his Graces, and can artfully vary and modulate his Voice, even to know how much breath he is to give to every syllable. He had all the parts of an excellent Orator, (animating his words with speaking, and Speech with Action) his Auditors being never more delighted then [sic] when he spoke nor more sorry then [sic] when he held his peace; yet even then, he was an excellent Actor still, never failing in his Part when he had done speaking; but with his looks and gesture, maintaining it still unto the heighth, he imagining Age quod agis, onely spoke to him; so as those who call him a Player do him wrong, no man being less idle then [sic] he, whose whole life is nothing else but action, with only this difference from other mens, that as what is but a Play to them, is his Business: so their business is but a play to him.

Comments: Richard Flecknoe (? – c.1678) was an English poet and dramatist, best known for being the subject of the satires of others (Dryden, Marvell). Richard Burbage (1567-1619), the great actor, theatre owner and friend of William Shakespeare, is warmly described by Flecknoe, but it is not certain that the latter ever saw him. Flecknoe’s birth date is not known, but he is known to have been at school between 1619 (the year of Burbage’s death) and 1624. Field was the English actor and dramatist Nathan Field (1587-1620).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Hannah More

Source: William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Hannah More, vol. 1 (London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1836), pp. 68-70

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Drury Lane, London, 30 May 1776

Text: Adelphi, 1776.
I imagine my last was not so ambiguous but that you saw well enough I staid in town to see Hamlet, and I will venture to say, that it was such an entertainment as will probably never again be exhibited to an admiring world. But this general panegyric can give you no idea of my feelings; and particular praise would be injurious to his excellences.

In every part he filled the whole soul of the spectator, and transcended the most finished idea of the poet. The requisites for Hamlet are not only various, but opposed. In him they are all united, and as it were concentrated. One thing I must particularly remark, that, whether in the simulation of madness, in the sinkings of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion, or in the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince; and in every variety of situation, and transition of feeling, you discovered the highest polish of fine breeding and courtly manners.

Hamlet experiences the conflict of many passions and affections, but filial love ever takes the lead; that is the great point from which he sets out, and to which he returns; the others are all contingent and subordinate to it, and are cherished or renounced, as they promote or obstruct the operation of this leading principle. Had you seen with what exquisite art and skill Garrick maintained the subserviency of the less to the greater interests, you would agree with me, of what importance to the perfection of acting, is that consummate good sense which always pervades every part of his performances.

To the most eloquent expression of the eye, to the hand-writing of the passions on his features, to a sensibility which tears to pieces the hearts of his auditors, to powers so unparalleled, he adds a judgment of the most exquisite accuracy, the fruit of long experience and close observation, by which he preserves every gradation and transition of the passions, keeping all under the controul of a just dependence and natural consistency. So naturally, indeed, do the ideas of the poet seem to mix with his own, that he seemed himself to be engaged in a succession of affecting situations, not giving utterance to a speech, but to the instantaneous expression of his feelings, delivered in the most affecting tones of voice, and with gestures that belong only to nature. It was a fiction as delightful as fancy, and as touching as truth. A few nights before I saw him in ‘Abel Drugger;’ and had I not seen him in both, I should have thought it as possible for Milton to have written ‘Hudibras,’ and Butler ‘Paradise Lost,’ as for one man to have played ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Drugger’ with such excellence.

I found myself, not only in the best place, but with the best company in the house, for I sat next the orchestra, in which were a number of my acquaintance (and those no vulgar names) Edmund and Richard Burke, Dr. Warton, and Sheridan.

Comments: Hannah More (1745-1833) was a British playwright, poet and philanthropist. This letter from 1776 is reproduced in her biography. 1776 was David Garrick‘s final year as a stage performer, and his performance in Hamlet was 30 May 1776 at Drury Lane, a production that sold out in two hours. He had played Abel Drugger in The Alchemist for the last time on 11 April 1776. More, a personal friend, saw several of Garrick’s final performances at this time.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 28 December 1666

Productions: William Shakespeare (adapted by William Davenant), Macbeth and Roger Boyle, Henry the Fifth, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and at court (Whitehall) respectively, London, 28 December 1666

Text: Up, and Creed and I walked (a very fine walk in the frost) to my Lord Bellasses, but missing him did find him at White Hall, and there spoke with him about some Tangier business. That done, we to Creed’s lodgings, which are very pretty, but he is going from them. So we to Lincoln’s Inne Fields, he to Ned Pickering’s, who it seems lives there, keeping a good house, and I to my Lord Crew’s, where I dined, and hear the newes how my Lord’s brother, Mr. Nathaniel Crew, hath an estate of 6 or 700l. per annum, left him by the death of an old acquaintance of his, but not akin to him at all. And this man is dead without will, but had, above ten years since, made over his estate to this Mr. Crew, to him and his heirs for ever, and given Mr. Crew the keeping of the deeds in his own hand all this time; by which, if he would, he might have taken present possession of the estate, for he knew what they were. This is as great an act of confident friendship as this latter age, I believe, can shew. From hence to the Duke’s house, and there saw “Macbeth” most excellently acted, and a most excellent play for variety. I had sent for my wife to meet me there, who did come, and after the play was done, I out so soon to meet her at the other door that I left my cloake in the playhouse, and while I returned to get it, she was gone out and missed me, and with W. Hewer away home. I not sorry for it much did go to White Hall, and got my Lord Bellasses to get me into the playhouse; and there, after all staying above an hour for the players, the King and all waiting, which was absurd, saw “Henry the Fifth” well done by the Duke’s people, and in most excellent habits, all new vests, being put on but this night. But I sat so high and far off, that I missed most of the words, and sat with a wind coming into my back and neck, which did much trouble me. The play continued till twelve at night; and then up, and a most horrid cold night it was, and frosty, and moonshine. But the worst was, I had left my cloak at Sir G. Carteret’s, and they being abed I was forced to go home without it. So by chance got a coach and to the Golden Lion Taverne in the Strand, and there drank some mulled sack, and so home, where find my poor wife staying for me, and then to bed mighty cold.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The two plays he saw on this one day were William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, as adapted by William Davenant, and a Henry the Fifth that was in all probability the play by Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, rather than Shakespeare’s play.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/12/28/

A Persian at the Court of King George

Source: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan (ed./trans. Margaret Morris Cloake), A Persian at the Court of King George: The Journal of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10 (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), p. 232

Text: 14 May [1810]

My friends told me about a theatre on the outskirts of London called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’, which opens in the spring, and where one can watch horses dancing. I went there with Sir Gore Ouseley. The theatre is somewhat smaller than the others I have seen and described in this journal.

I will describe the performance of one of the nimble riders who stood on a horse’s back, without holding the reins, while the horse continued to run around the circular arena. Sometimes he jumped down to the ground and back up again; sometimes he stood on one foot, or lay down, or stood on his head with his legs in the air; sometimes he would vault himself from one side of the horse to the other; or, grasping the horse’s body with his legs, he would hang underneath with his hands trailing on the ground. Then a second horse was brought in to run alongside the first. The rider jumped back and forth from one horse to the other, dancing and clapping his hands. A third horse was added and he continued dancing. Most amazing of all was his feat of jumping from one side to the other over all three horses!

The owner of the theatre was a friendly man; he explained to me how the horses are trained to perform these tricks. My Iranian servants were amazed and astonished by what they had seen.

As we left the theatre, I told Sir Gore Ouseley I thought the horses performed so well that it should be called the ‘Horse Opera’.

Comments: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, or Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi (1776-1845) was an Iranian ambassador who headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1809-1810. Astley’s Amphitheatre was originally a circus (opened 1770), but later put on pantomimes and other such entertainments. It was located by Westminster Bridge and had burned down twice before it became famous in the 1800s for its equestrian spectaculars, such as seen by Mirza Abul Hassan Khan.

The Dramatic Censor

Source: Francis Gentleman, The Dramatic Censor; or, Critical Companion, vol. 1 (London: J. Bell, 1770), pp.196-198

Text: Portia has fallen to the lot of several capital ladies; and indeed she not only requires, but merits the exertion of eminent abilities; Mrs. WOFFINGTON, whose deportment in a male character, was so free and elegant, whose figure was so proportionate and delicate, notwithstanding a voice unfavourable for declamation, must, in our opinion, stand foremost; her first scene was supported with an uncommon degree of spirited archness; her behaviour during Bassanio’s choice of the caskets, conveyed a strong picture of unstudied anxiety; the trial scene she sustained with amiable dignity, the speech upon mercy she marked as well as any body else; and, in the fifth act, she carried on the sham quarrel in a very laughable manner; to sum up all, while in petticoats, she shewed the woman of solid sense, and real fashion; when in breeches, the man of education, judgment and gentility—Mrs. ABINGTON treads so much in her steps, and has so many of the happy requisites just mentioned, that we make no scruple of placing her second upon the whole; nay, in some particular places, we think her equal.

Miss MACKLIN undoubtedly speaks the part in an unexceptionable manner, but we deem her rather too petit in person and expression; Mrs. CLIVE, who obtained no small share of applause, was a ludicrous burlesque on the character, every feature and limb contrasted the idea SHAKESPEARE gives us of Portia in the spirited scene she was clumsy, and spoke them in the same strain of chambermaid delicacy she did Lappet or Flippanta; in the grave part—sure never was such a female put into breeches before!—she was awkwardly dissonant; and, as if conscious she could not get through without the aid of trick, flew to the pitiful resource of taking off the peculiarity of some judge or noted lawyer; from which wise stroke, she created laughter in a scene where the deepest attention should be preserved, till Gratiano’s retorts upon the Jew, work a contrary effect.

Mrs. YATES, with an amazing degree of condescension has lately vouchsafed to perform Portia, for that night only—that night only, the phrase is so modest, that we repeat it—if she can do the part better than any body else, the public in general, and the managers in particular, have a right to expect her in it whenever the play is done; if she is not so capable as the person in possession of it, why should she impose upon her friends, even for one night; this is one out of many low, theatrical finesses, thrown out as baits to catch gudgeons; however, if this lady thinks criticism has any cause to languish for a repetition of her Portia, she is utterly mistaken -, since it is certain that, deducting her great name, and some merit in the fourth act, she has shewn nothing more than that capital talents may occasionally dwindle into very middling execution.

Comments: Francis Gentleman (1728-1784) was an Irish actor, playwright and theatrical commentator. His book The Dramatic Censor analyses the theatrical repertoire of the period, with assessments of the individual roles as played by the leading actors he had seen. The Irish actress Peg Woffington (1720-1760) first played Portia in London in 1743. The other actresses described are Frances Abington (1737-1815), who played Portia many times in the 1760s; Maria Macklin (1733-1781), who also played Portia frequently in the 1760s; Kitty Clive (1711-1785), who first performed Portia in 1741 and many times thereafter, despite regular comment that she was unsuited to the role; and tragic actress Mary Ann Yates (1728-1787), whose one-off benefit performance in The Merchant of Venice took place at Covent Garden on 27 March 1770.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Gielgud’s Letters

Source: Letter from John Gielgud to Irene Worth, 20 June 1970, in Richard Mangan (ed.), Gielgud’s Letters (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 356

Production: William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Mermaid Theatre, London, 19 June 1970

Text: Went to Jonathan Miller’s Tempest at the Mermaid yesterday (greatly praised by the critics) with Fabia Drake. Couldn’t bear Jonathan M.’s production – ponderous, ugly, slow and flat-footed, no sense of grouping or movement though a packed and enthusiastically attentive young audience – hundreds of pretty girls with crackling shopping bags and sunglasses pushed up into their hair. Only Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter) most interesting as a real child Miranda, very plain indeed, but hushed and eagerly intense – one could really believe she’d never seen a man except her Dad! – and a very good red-haired, toothless, Negro Caliban. But the rest – my God – awful pseudo Velasquez costumes, everyone in black including Ariel, a grave 30-year-old Negro also, and three awful coloured goddesses who never looked at the lovers and sang the whole Masque to pseudo Monteverdi. At Cambridge the whole thing would deserve praise as an interesting and promising experiment but not in London.

Comments: John Gielgud (1904-2004) was a British actor and theatre director. The production he saw of The Tempest at the Mermaid Theatre was directed by Jonathan Miller. Graham Crowden was Prospero and Norman Beaton Ariel. Caliban was played by Rudolph Walker.

Daniel Webster in England

Source: Edward Gray (ed.), Daniel Webster in England: Journal of Harriette Story Paige, 1839 (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), pp. 72-73

Production: William Shakespeare, Henry V, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 29 June 1839

Text: In the evening by particular request, and invitation from Macready the actor, we went accompanied by Colonel Webb, of New York, and Captain Stockton to witness the representation of Shakspeare’s play of King Henry V. Mr. Webster had gone to the House of Lords, and contrary to our expectations, did not get to “Covent Garden” for the evening. This play has been restored by Macready, who takes the part of the King, his performance was admirable; too much cannot be said in praise of his unwearied efforts to restore the British drama to its former reputation and eminence. The King is seen in the play, to embark from England at the Tower Stairs, with his Court, retinue &c., then the Cliffs of Dover are seen, and the whole fleet appears sailing onward. The sun sets, the moon rises, finally, the French coast of Boulogne is visible, and gradually becomes more distinct. The bombardment takes place, then clouds appear, roll over, and conceal all. Then comes a prologue, or “chorus,” spoken by a figure, dressed as Time; he keeps the spectators informed of all the events that have occurred, and behind him, is a pictorial exhibition, of these scenes occurring, so skilfully managed that it seems reality. After this, the clouds disappear and the actors are again visible, but before each act, Time with his chorus appears, and from him we learn the course of events. Covent Garden is a spacious, large theatre; our box was on a level with the orchestra, and below the stage, but so near to it, that our opportunity for enjoying this novel play, was particularly good.

Comments: Harriette Story Page (1806-1863) was the sister-in-law of the American politician Daniel Webster. She accompanied him of his European visit in 1839. The production she saw of Henry V at Covent Garden starred William Macready, with scenery and dioramas designed by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield. Part of what Macready ‘restored’ to the play was the part of the Chorus, cur from earlier productions.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust