United Kingdom

Queen Victoria’s Journals

‘Van Amburgh in the Wild Cat Cage’, London Art Journal (1879), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Alexandrina Victoria, journal entry for 24 January 1839

Text: At 10 I went with Lady Breadalbane (who came after dinner) and Miss Murray (in my carriage), Lehzen, Lord Conyngham, Lord Lilford, Lord Alfred, and Sir Robert Otway (in the others) to Drury Lane. We came in about 20 minutes before the Lions come on. Van Amburgh surpassed even himself, and was miraculous; he stayed a much longer time than usual in the 1st cage, and all the animals, were much more lively than usual, in the 2nd cage, as usual, the little lamb was brought in, while he was reclining on the lion’s body and head, and put before the Lion’s nose, which he, as usual, bore with indifference; when one of the Leopards, the smallest of all the animals, and a sneaking little thing, came, seized the lamb, and ran off with it; all the others, except the lion, and all those in the other cage making a rush to help in the slaughter, it was an awful moment, and we thought all was over, when Van Amburgh rushed to the Leopard, tore the lamb, unhurt, from the Leopard, which he beat severely,- took the lamb in his arms,- only looked at all the others, and not one moved, though in the act of devouring the lamb. It was beautiful and wonderful; and he was immensely applauded; he held the lamb for a few minutes in his arms; and then sent it out of the cage, but remained himself some little time in the cage, making these animals obey just as usual. After the Pantomime was over, we waited in a little ante-room till everybody was gone, and the house quite cleared, and then we all went down on the Stage, which was walled in by Scenery; and the cages with the animals again brought on; there they were, and most beautiful beasts they are, so sleek, so well-conditioned – and so wild – that really Van Amburgh’s power seems little short of a miracle. They had not been fed since early the preceding day, and consequently were wilder than usual; Van Amburgh, who was in plain clothes, is a tall, but not very powerful looking man; young, very modest, quiet and unassuming; with a mild expression, a receding forehead, and very peculiar eyes, which don’t exactly squint, but have a cast in them. I asked him if that had ever happened before with the lamb; he replied: “Sometimes it does; it did the first time I took one in”; but the lamb was unhurt; they then fed them, and they roared, and fought with one another terrifically; but it was very fine. I didn’t allow Van Amburgh to go into the cages, but he went up to them, and stroked them and they obeyed him wonderfully; he told Lord Conyngham that they were all full grown, but two, when he first had them; the large lion in the furthest cage is the fiercest, he says; and the weight of the leopard, which he carries on his head and shoulders, and makes perform every sort of beautiful trick, is 14 stone. He scarcely ever uses an iron bar to them, but only a stick made of Rhinoceros hide, which he showed us. We came home at ½ p.12 …

Comments: Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), later just Victoria, was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to her death, and additionally titled Empress of India from 1876. She kept up a journal from 1832 until almost the end of her life. The journal records many visits to the theatre, particularly in her younger days. She was particularly fond of the animal shows of the American trainer Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865), who was renowned for acts such as putting his head inside a lion’s jaws, but also notorious for the mistreatment of the animals in his menagerie. This occasion was the third occasions on which she had seen Van Amburgh’s act, which a regular part of the Drury Lane programme at this time.

Links: Queen Victoria’s Journals

A Female Hamlet

Source: Sydney Race, ‘A Female Hamlet’ in Ann Featherstone (ed.), The Journals of Sydney Race 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment (London: Society for Theatre Research, 2007), pp. 131-134

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Grand Theatre, Nottingham, 26 October 1899

Text: October 26th, A Female Hamlet

At 9 o’clock tonight to the Grand Theatre to see Miss Clare Howard in Hamlet. The company appearing there this week is Mr George Daventry’s and with the exception of this one performance they are playing melodrama – The Indian Mutiny and Lost in Paris. In both these plays, I think – certainly in The Indian Mutiny Miss Howard takes a female character which she plays with much vigour to the great delight of ‘Grand’ audiences. Hamlet seems to have been added to her repertoire some time ago, to judge from the photographs I have seen about, but I had never heard of her until she appeared here. The scenery and the dresses look as though they were the company’s own, so they must be playing the tragedy elsewhere.

Miss Howard, who according to the Express, is Mr Daventry’s wife, is tall and has clear cut features with a well shaped nose. In Hamlet she wore a rather tight fitting gown, somewhat resembling a cassock, through which very occasionally we caught a glimpse of a black stockinged leg. Above this gown was a loose robe of the shape of an M.A.’s, and towards the end of the play she wrapped round her a dark heliotrope coloured cloak. At her waist was a dagger. The hair was worn loose over the shoulders.

Miss Howard has not very emotional features, and the only passion she can indicate is anger. She has a loud voice, obviously that of a queen of melodrama, but as it is by no means a feminine one, it is not unsuited to the role.

When I got to the theatre, a nicely spoken, and evidently well-educated, girl was reciting the last speech of the player queen. The close of this scene, Miss Howard too, I thought, in a much too hysterical fashion. From her place by Ophelia, she grovelled across the stage to the King and then yelled her words into his face. This was very unnatural. Miss Howard did the business with the pipe, which Mr Benson, I think, omitted, and at the finish there was a very effective tableau – Hamlet leaning over a table reciting the words:

Tis now the [very] Witching time of night.

and the black velvet curtains at the back parted to reveal the motionless figure of the Ghost. The Ghost at the Grand differed a little from the one at the Royal. Its garments were shaped more like ordinary mortals’ and they hone with the brilliancy of many silver spangles.

The scene with the mother was hardly taken in a right filial spirit – if Hamlet was chiefly mad ‘bending his eye on vacancy.’ Miss Nellie King, a rather stout lady, who was the Queen could not add any dignity to this scene. Unfortunately she would keep reminding me of the Lady queens in the ‘portables’ of my youth.

In Act 4 Scene 2 Miss Howard made plain a point which Mr Benson it seems to me missed. I mean the little passage where Hamlet calls the King his mother.

Hamlet Farewell, dear mother.
King Thy loving father, Hamlet.
Hamlet My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so my mother.

The concluding words – ‘For England’ – were very vigorously delivered by our female Hamlet, and brought down the house. The preceding passage, ‘if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself’ had also been delivered with much unction and was [in a] new light to me.

At the end of Act 4 Scene 3 Miss Howard introduced a new reading. The King sat down and wrote a letter for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to carry asking for Hamlet to be assassinated. Hamlet overhears this read, comes in and writes another letter, on similar parchment, asking for the messengers who carry it to be slain. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, Hamlet asks to look at the parchment they carry, and before handing it back substitutes his own for it. For this scene the Express says Miss Howard has found her authority in an old folio. I should like, however, to make some examination of the old texts before passing any judgement on it. At the end of Act 4 the body of Ophelia was brought in on a bier, and after Laertes’ speech the curtain came down on his standing weeping over it. The applause was so great that it had to go up again, and then we saw the bier moving off with the grief stricken brother helped along after it – a very effective ending.

The churchyard scene was taken in on true low comedy vein by the two clowns. The only thing I did not like about the 1st grave digger was his slapping of the skulls with his hands which made the audience laugh immoderately. For the rest, he was rather good, and though his work was of a more common order than Mr Weir’s, yet in a theatre like this it was more effective, and I am half of an opinion that it was also more humorous.

The interment of Ophelia was not so well managed as at the Benson’s performance, for the body was lifted into the grave in our sight. The consequence was that the work not being done neatly, a number of the ‘gods’ took it into their heads to laugh, and the laughter was repeated when Laertes jumped into the grave a few minutes later and half lifted the body up again in wishing Ophelia farewell.

The message of Osric was delivered by the very nicely spoken girl I have mentioned as appearing as the Player Girl. Here, she looked very nice in her boy’s suit, besides acting the part charmingly. On the program I see the name of the Player Queen was given as Miss Marie Ellerton, Osric being down to somebody else entirely, but really, I believe, she was Miss Daventry, Miss Howard’s daughter. I was much pleased with her.

The last scene of all was very finely acted by Miss Howard, the death being especially well done. The fight was much more prolonged than at the Benson’s performance, and the two fought with long, stout swords, not rapiers. This gave an opportunity for sparks to fly, and for our enthusiasm to grow very high, and really, though there was not the same skill shown as by Mr Benson and his companion, the combat looked a dangerous one. After drinking the poisoned cup Miss Howard fell on her knees and made a fine end of it. At the words:

The potent poison doth steal about my soul

she gave a realistic shiver, and at last seemed hardly able to gasp out,

the rest is silence.

The stage had been darkened for this moment and a strong white light was thrown on her face to set off its agony. This was undoubtedly a capital piece of work. At the Benson rendering of the play there was so much confusion on the stage at the finish, that I have no idea how Hamlet died. It seems a point in Miss Howard’s favour that her death scene should have made so strong an impression on, a least, one spectator.

Undoubtedly this Hamlet of Miss Howard’s was a very interesting performance. As I have pointed out it had some strong points, and every now and then there was an introduction of impressive business, as for instance where the actress silently crossed herself at the words, ‘To what base uses we may return, Horatio’ (Act 5 Scene 1). Miss Howard showed herself to be possessed of a surprisingly powerful voice and she carried the whole play through with great vigour. The chief fault in the performance was that Hamlet was never made to appear mad or, perhaps as he really was, to be shamming a madness. On the contrary, he was a remarkably sane person, and one not very polite to his betters, to boot. If Miss Howard could rid herself of all traces of melodrama for this one play, and make Hamlet more of the moody scholar, she would give a capital representation of the character.

Polonius and the 1st gravedigger were taken, I think, by the same actor – Mr John Hignett, who makes a very useful player. Polonius both in looks and manner very much resembled the same individual in the Benson performance.

The King (Mr Magill Martyn), like the Queen, was too much extracted from melodrama to be satisfactory. Laertes (Mr George Daventry) was also of the common order, but acted very vigorously and much to the satisfaction of the ‘house.’ Mr Daventry wears a moustache and speaks with his mouth awry.

Miss Ethel King, the Ophelia, rather pleased me. She is young and the part was evidently a heavy task for her, but she managed it very nicely. The rest of the actors were a more or less feeble lot. For the first time in my experience of the stage I saw an actor (Guildenstern) who did not know What to do with his hands. Possibly, however, he was little more than a super.

There was a very good house in the popular parts to see the performance and the boxes and dress circle all had their occupants. It was quite apparent that the audience was much interested in the play, but it had not the same critical judgement as the house at the Benson performance. Here at the ‘Grand’ the ‘gods’ could not help laughing at the word ‘bloody’, and the noise had nearly grown into a roar before it was hushed down. At our other theatre a disturbance of this kind was not tolerated at its inception.

(PS. The short criticism in the Express of this performance is rubbish.)

Comments: Sydney Race (1875-1960) was the working-class son of a Nottingham cotton mill engineer. He worked as an insurance clerk, later in the Nottinghamshire Education Department. He was an keen contributor to Nottinghamshire newspapers and historical journals, and kept a journal in which records the many kinds of entertainment that he saw in Nottingham. He saw Hamlet at the Grand Theatre, Nottingham, on 26 October 1899. Clare Howard was a leading lady at the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel, specialising in melodramas with her husband George Daventry. My thanks to Ann Featherstone, editor of Race’s journals, for permission to reproduce this text.

Riot at Covent Garden Theatre

‘Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, 1763 print, Theatre and Performance Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1763, vol. XXXII, p. 97

Production: Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 February 1763

Text: A riot happened at Covent-Garden theatre occasioned by a demand being made for full prices at the opera of Artaxerxes. The mischief done was the greatest ever, known on any occasion of the like kind; all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so that if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000l. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.

Comments: The opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne premiered successfully at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762. When it was revived at the same theatre on 24 February 1763 a riot occurred in protest at the abolition of half-price admissions. It has been the custom to sell half-price tickets for latecomers who would see only the short afterpiece rather than the main attraction of the evening. This change in policy was fiercely opposed by some and led to several such riots, at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The protests caused the half-price concession to be re-introduced when the theatre re-opened on March 2nd. 2000l is £2,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet, seeing the Ghost in his mother’s chamber, from Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s works (1709), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Colley Cibber (ed. Robert W. Lowe), An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, written by himself (London: John C. Nimmo, 1889 [orig. pub. 1740), vol. 1, pp. 99-105

Text: Betterton was an Actor, as Shakespear was an Author, both without Competitors! form’d for the mutual Assistance and Illustration of each others Genius! How Shakespear wrote, all Men who have a Taste for Nature may read and know — but with what higher Rapture would he still be read could they conceive how Betterton playd him! Then might they know the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write! Pity it is that the momentary Beauties flowing from an harmonious Elocution cannot, like those of Poetry, be their own Record! That the animated Graces of the Player can live no longer than the instant Breath and Motion that presents them, or at best can but faintly glimmer through the Memory or imperfect Attestation of a few surviving Spectators. Could how Betterton spoke be as easily known as what he spoke, then might you see the Muse of Shakespear in her Triumph, with all her Beauties in their best Array rising into real Life and charming her Beholders. But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of Description, how shall I shew you Betterton? Should I therefore tell you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Mackbeths, and Brutus‘s whom you may have seen since his Time, have fallen far short of him; this still would give you no Idea of his particular Excellence. Let us see then what a particular Comparison may do! whether that may yet draw him nearer to you?

You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first Appearance of his Father’s Spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining Vociferation requisite to express Rage and Fury, and the House has thunder’d with Applause; tho’ the mis-guided Actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a Passion into Rags – I am the more bold to offer you this particular Instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him to see this Scene acted, made the same Observation, asking me, with some Surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a Passion with the Ghost, which, tho’ it might have astonish’d, it had not provok’d him? for you may observe that in this beautiful Speech the Passion never rises beyond an almost breathless Astonishment, or an Impatience, limited by filial Reverence, to enquire into the suspected Wrongs that may have rais’d him from his peaceful Tomb! and a Desire to know what a Spirit so seemingly distrest might wish or enjoin a sorrowful Son to execute towards his future Quiet in the Grave? This was the Light into which Betterton threw this Scene; which he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly to a solemn, trembling Voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator as to himself! and in the descriptive Part of the natural Emotions which the ghastly Vision gave him, the boldness of his Expostulation was still govern’d by Decency, manly, but not braving; his Voice never rising into that seeming Outrage or wild Defiance of what he naturally rever’d. But alas! to preserve this medium, between mouthing and meaning too little, to keep the Attention more pleasingly awake by a temper’d Spirit than by meer Vehemence of Voice, is of all the Master-strokes of an Actor the most difficult to reach. In this none yet have equall’d Betterton. But I am unwilling to shew his Superiority only by recounting the Errors of those who now cannot answer to them, let their farther Failings therefore be forgotten! or rather, shall I in some measure excuse them? For I am not yet sure that they might not be as much owing to the false Judgment of the Spectator as the Actor. While the Million are so apt to be transported when the Drum of their Ear is so roundly rattled; while they take the Life of Elocution to lie in the Strength of the Lungs, it is no wonder the Actor, whose end is Applause, should be also tempted at this easy rate to excite it. Shall I go a little farther? and allow that this Extreme is more pardonable than its opposite Error? I mean that dangerous Affectation of the Monotone, or solemn Sameness of Pronounciation, which, to my Ear, is insupportable; for of all Faults that so frequently pass upon the Vulgar, that of Flatness will have the fewest Admirers. That this is an Error of ancient standing seems evident by what Hamlet says, in his Instructions to the Players, viz.

Be not too tame, neither, &c.

The Actor, doubtless, is as strongly ty’d down to the Rules of Horace as the Writer.

Si vis me flere, dolendum est
Primum ipsi tibi –

He that feels not himself the Passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping Audience: But this never was the Fault of Betterton; and it has often amaz’d me to see those who soon came after him throw out, in some Parts of a Character, a just and graceful Spirit which Betterton himself could not but have applauded. And yet in the equally shining Passages of the same Character have heavily dragg’d the Sentiment along like a dead Weight, with a long-ton’d Voice and absent Eye, as if they had fairly forgot what they were about: If you have never made this Observation, I am contented you should not know where to apply it.

A farther Excellence in Betterton was, that he could vary his Spirit to the different Characters he acted. Those wild impatient Starts, that fierce and flashing Fire, which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled Temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur): when the Betterton Brutus was provok’d in his Dispute with Cassius, his Spirit flew only to his Eye; his steady Look alone supply’d that Terror which he disdain’d an Intemperance in his Voice should rise to. Thus, with a settled Dignity of Contempt, like an unheeding Rock he repelled upon himself the Foam of Cassius. Perhaps the very Words of Shakespear will better let you into my Meaning:

Must I give way and room to your rash Choler?
Shall I be frighted when a Madman stares?

And a little after,

There is no Terror, Cassius, in your Looks! &c.

Not but in some part of this Scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his Temper is not under this Suppression, but opens into that Warmth which becomes a Man of Virtue; yet this is that Hasty Spark of Anger which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse.

But with whatever strength of Nature we see the Poet shew at once the Philosopher and the Heroe, yet the Image of the Actor’s Excellence will be still imperfect to you unless Language could put Colours in our Words to paint the Voice with.

Et, si vis similem pijigere, pinge sonum, is enjoyning an impossibility. The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his Portraits of great Persons seem to think; a Shakespear goes farther yet, and tells you what his Pictures thought; a Betterton steps beyond ’em both, and calls them from the Grave to breathe and be themselves again in Feature, Speech, and Motion. When the skilful Actor shews you all these Powers at once united, and gratifies at once your Eye, your Ear, your Understanding: To conceive the Pleasure rising from such Harmony, you must have been present at it! ’tis not to be told you!

Comments: Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an English actor-manager, playwright and poet laureate, whose engaging memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber is one of the best accounts we have of the theatre of his times. He began his acting career in Thomas Betterton‘s company in 1690, and rose in the profession to become manager of Drury Lane Theatre in 1710. Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710) was the leading English male actor of his time, who frequently played Shakespearean roles (generally in adaptations by writers of the period, including Betterton himself). Going by the rough chronology of Cibber’s memoir, he is referring to performances of Betterton in Hamlet in the 1690s.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

Margaret Farrell, who became Margaret Kennedy on her second marriage, as Macheath in 1777, University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection

Source: George Atkinson Ward, The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen, an American in England, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1864 [4th ed.]), p. 305

Production: John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 25 September 1780

Text: Sept. 25. At Covent Garden Theatre; performance, “Beggar’s Opera;” parts well played, but great impropriety, not to say indecency, in Mrs. Kennedy’s personating McHeath. Bravery, gallantry, and a fearless disregard of death, the characteristics of that notorious highwayman, which female softness awkwardly imitates. Following entertainment, falsely so called; execrably foolish and childish. I am sorry to arraign even the shilling gallery for want of judgment, in suffering such unmeaning stuff to pass for a farce.

Comments: Samuel Curwen (1715-1802) was an American merchant and justice. As a British loyalist fled America in 1775, having been attacked for not opposing the British military action at Lexington and Concord, and spent ten years in Britain, during which time he became a supporter of the American cause. John Gay‘s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera was performed at Covent Garden on 25 September 1780 with the contralto Margaret Kennedy, well-known for her performances in male roles, playing Macheath.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 8 March 1664

Production: Pierre Corneille, Héraclius, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, 8 March 1664

Text: Up with some little discontent with my wife upon her saying that she had got and used some puppy-dog water, being put upon it by a desire of my aunt Wight to get some for her, who hath a mind, unknown to her husband, to get some for her ugly face. I to the office, where we sat all the morning, doing not much business through the multitude of counsellors, one hindering another. It was Mr. Coventry’s own saying to me in his coach going to the ‘Change, but I wonder that he did give me no thanks for my letter last night, but I believe he did only forget it. Thence home, whither Luellin came and dined with me, but we made no long stay at dinner; for “Heraclius” being acted, which my wife and I have a mighty mind to see, we do resolve, though not exactly agreeing with the letter of my vowe, yet altogether with the sense, to see another this month, by going hither instead of that at Court, there having been none conveniently since I made my vowe for us to see there, nor like to be this Lent, and besides we did walk home on purpose to make this going as cheap as that would have been, to have seen one at Court, and my conscience knows that it is only the saving of money and the time also that I intend by my oaths, and this has cost no more of either, so that my conscience before God do after good consultation and resolution of paying my forfeit, did my conscience accuse me of breaking my vowe, I do not find myself in the least apprehensive that I have done any violence to my oaths. The play hath one very good passage well managed in it, about two persons pretending, and yet denying themselves, to be son to the tyrant Phocas, and yet heire of Mauritius to the crowne. The garments like Romans very well. The little girle is come to act very prettily, and spoke the epilogue most admirably. But at the beginning, at the drawing up of the curtaine, there was the finest scene of the Emperor and his people about him, standing in their fixed and different pastures in their Roman habitts, above all that ever I yet saw at any of the theatres. Walked home, calling to see my brother Tom, who is in bed, and I doubt very ill of a consumption. To the office awhile, and so home to supper and to bed.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. Pepys and his wife Elizabeth saw Pierre Corneille‘s 1647 French tragedy Héraclius, on the Byzantine emperor of that name, in a version by an unknown English translator, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in all probability performed by the Duke’s Company. The cast is not known. Pepys had made a Lenten vow to himself to limit his theatregoing, which he got round by persuading himself that a play at a different location to one seen at court did not count.

Links: http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1664/03/08

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Publicity postcard for Fred Melville’s melodrama ‘The Bad Girl of the Family’, c.1909, via University of Kent

Source: Extract from interview with Percival Frederick Chambers, C707/145/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. You were saying how you used to get to Brixton?

A. Horse-drawn tram. They used to change the horses half way at a pub called the George Canning which is half way between West Norwood and Brixton. Well then – Brixton was a market place as you probably knew. And we used to go there Saturday evenings used to be – oh let’s go to Brixton. Well now down there you had there theatre and the music hall. The theatre was known as the Brixt[on] Theatre and the music hall was known as the Empress Music Mall.

Q. And you used to go there?

A. Well, yes, occasionally, on the Saturday night. I personally used to go to the theatre ‘cos I’m not keen – variety stuff. And we used to watch all these – very old plays written by Albert [sic] Melville which were all – dealing with bad ladies you know, one of them was called the Bad Girl of the Family. That type,

Q. Did she turn out good in the end?

A. Well, she was a good person in the end but –

Q. They usually had a moral didn’t they?

A. Oh yes, they did, they – used to have a different one each week you see. And – that was our amusement on the Saturday. Used to be football in the afternoon and then theatre or music hall in the evening. Finishing up probably with a – fish – fish and chip supper in the arcade at Sam Isaacs which was a well known fish shop. Then – if you were out shopping and if you were married and you’re out shopping you stay in Brixton to eleven or half past eleven at night and you get a joint there for – just – almost a few coppers I was going to say, but – quite as bad as that but –

Q. Do you remember the names of any of the other plays you saw?

A. Albert Meville, yes, Meville. He used to run the theatre you see.

Q. He ran the theatre and wrote the plays?

A. Well, no, he didn’t write the plays but they used to produce them you see. The Meville family who I – were quite a well known family in – in that world at that time, that type of world.

Q. Did members of the family act in the plays too?

A. No, I don’t think so, no.

Q. And the plays changed every week?

A. Changed every week. I can’t think of the others, I know that particular one, the Bad Girl of the Family. My wife might remember some of those.

Q. Did you ever go to the music hall?

A. I only went perhaps twice, that’s all.

Q. It didn’t appeal to you?

A. It doesn’t now, doesn’t – I mean when you’ve seen one turn you’ve seen the lot. I mean, I’m not narrow minded or anything like that. But – some of it is real smut I think.

Comments: Percival Frederick Chambers (1894-?) was born in Kettering, the eldest of four children of a stonemason. His mother Mother ran sweet shop in West Norwood, London. The family home was behind the shop. He was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). The brothers Walter Melville (1875-1937) and Frederick Melville (1876-1938) were theatre impresarios and playwrights. They began their careers in Birmingham, before jointly running the Lyceum Theatre in London from 1909, where they put on very popular pantomimes. They owned or leased several other theatres across the country, and both wrote vivid melodramas, of which Fred Meville’s The Bad Girl of the Family was typical. It premiered at the Adelphi Theatre in October 1909. He ran the Brixton Theatre from 1907, and in 1940, following his death, the theatre was named after him, only to be destroyed by bomb soon after. His actress and director daughter June married the actor John Le Mesurier.

Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Drury Lane Theatre in 1812, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 406-407

Production: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Remorse, Drury Lane, London, 23 January 1813

Text: January 23rd. — In the evening at Drury Lane, to see the first performance of Coleridge’s tragedy, “Remorse.”* I sat with Amyot, the Hamonds, Godwins, &c. My interest for the play was greater than in the play, and my anxiety for its success took from me the feeling of a mere spectator. I have no hesitation in saying that its poetical is far greater than its dramatic merit, that it owes its success rather to its faults than to its beauties, and that it will have for its less meritorious qualities applause which is really due to its excellences. Coleridge’s great fault is that he indulges before the public in those metaphysical and philosophical speculations which are becoming only in solitude or with select minds. His two principal characters are philosophers of Coleridge’s own school; the one a sentimental moralist, the other a sophisticated villain — both are dreamers. Two experiments made by Alvez on his return, the one on his mistress by relating a dream, and the other when he tries to kindle remorse in the breast of Ordonio, are too fine-spun to be intelligible. However, in spite of these faults, of the improbability of the action, of the clumsy contrivance with the picture, and the too ornate and poetic diction throughout, the tragedy was received with great and almost unmixed applause, and was announced for repetition without any opposition.

* Coleridge had complained to me of the way in which Sheridan spoke in company of his tragedy. He told me that Sheridan had said that in the original copy there was in the famous cave scene this line, —

“Drip! Drip! Drip! There’s nothing here but dripping.”

However, there was every disposition to do justice to it on the stage, nor were the public unfavourably disposed towards it.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (with whom Robinson was well acquainted) wrote a blank verse tragedy set in 16th-century Moorish Granada, entitled Osorio, in 1797. It was rejected by Drury Lane Theatre, then managed by Richard Sheridan, and went unperformed. Coleridge revised the play, and under the new title of Remorse it was put on at Drury Lane in 1813 where it was a success, enjoying twenty performances between January and May.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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.