United Kingdom

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

Alba, the Month’s Minde of a Melancholy Lover

Source: Extract from Robert Tofte, ‘Alba, the Month’s Minde of a Melancholy Lover’ (1598, third part, stanzas 81-84), reprinted in Rev. Alexander B. Grossart, Alba. The Month’s Minde of a Melancholy Lover, by Robert Tofte, Gentleman (1880), p. 105

Production: William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, London, 1590s

Text: LOVES LABOUR LOST, I once did see a Play
Ycleped so, so called to my pain.
Which I to hear to my small Joy did stay,
Giving attendance on my forward dame:
My misgiving mind presaging to me Ill,
Yet was I drawn to see it ‘gainst my Will.

This Play no Play, but Plague was unto me,
For there I lost the Love I liked most:
And what to others seemde a Jest to be,
I, that (in earnest) found unto my cost,
To every one (save me) twas Comicall,
Whilst Tragick like to me it did befall.

Each Actor played in cunning wise his part,
But chiefly Those entrapt in Cupids snare;
Yet all was fained, ’twas not from the hart,
They seemed to grieve, but yet they felt no care:
‘Twas I that Griefe (indeed) did bear in breast,
The others did but make a show in Jest.

Yet neither faining theirs, nor my meere Truth,
Could make her once so much as for to smile:
Whilst she (despite of pitie milde and ruth)
Did sit as skorning of my Woes the while.
Thus did she see fit to see LOVE lose his LOVE,
Like hardend Rock that force nor power can move.

Comments: Robert Tofte (c.1562-1620) was an English poet and translator. His long 1598 poem ‘Alba, The Months Minde of a Melancholy Lover’ contains the first reference in print to William Shakespeare‘s play Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Journals of Arnold Bennett

Lilian Braithwaite and Noël Coward, via Wikipedia

Source: Arnold Bennett, journal entry 4 February 1925, in Newman Flower (ed.), The Journals of Arnold Bennett: 1921-1928 (London: Cassell, 1933), pp. 73-74

Production: Noël Coward, The Vortex, Royalty Theatre, London, 4 February 1925

Text: Wednesday, February 4th
“The Vortex”, by Noel Coward, Royalty Theatre. As Pauline Smith was ill, I took Evelyn Foster instead. This play has made a great stir. First act played 43 minutes, and the first half-hour, and more, was spent in merely creating an atmosphere. Talk whose direction you couldn’t follow. No fair hint of plot till nearly the end – and hardly even then. Five unforeseen entrances of important characters. One might have been excused. In 2nd Act, some tiny glimpses of dramatic talent and ingenuities. the end of this Act, where the son plays the piano louder and louder while his mother makes love to a young man, is rather effective, original, and harrowing. The atomosphere of a country-house week-end party is fairly well got. Technique marred by important characters coming in unperceived and overhearing remarks. the 3rd Act contains the whole of the play, and is in effect a duologue between mother and son. Coward plays the son well, and Lilian Braithwaite gets through the mother as a sort of tour de force, but she never gives a convincing picture of an abandoned woman. The end is certainly harrowing to a high degree. But not much effect of beauty. Some smartness in the play, and certainly the germs of an effective dramatic skill; but really I saw nothing that was true except in minor details. I dozed off once in the last Act and Evelyn had to waken me.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist and playwright. Noël Coward‘s controversial play The Vortex originally opened at the Everyman on 25 November 1924, transferring later to the Royalty and then the Comedy.

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 126-127

Production: John G. Millingen and Charles E. Horn, The Bee-hive, Lyceum Theatre, London, 30 April 1811

Text: April 30. — I have already given a literal translation of one of those lyric pieces which are introduced in many English farces, and are often sung between he play and the farce. At Edinburgh we heard Bannister, and here Mathews, sing some of these select pieces with a great deal of true comic, and what is called here dry humour. Yesterday, particularly, Mathews delighted the public of the Lyceum in a new play, called the Bee-hive, played forty times running. The song of an inn-keeper, who enumerates the contents of his larder and kitchen, was encored again and again, with frantic applause. Other songs, however, which happened to be less in the popular taste, were received with coolness, and we heard some men behind us exclaim, among themselves, “Italian squalls!— What a shame, on a British theatre, — Just like the opera by G— !” Whenever I have expressed any surprise at the state of the English stage, I have been told that it was only the amusement of the vulgar, and that if I chose to partake of it, I must not complain. Admitting that people of fashion scarcely ever go to the theatre, yet the lowest of the people do not frequent it more then they do; — it is in fact filled by the middle class, neither the highest nor the lowest, and that is precisely the class where I should look for the true and legitimate national taste. Besides, if the theatres of Covent-Garden and Drury-Lane are for the vulgar, what other is there left for those who rank themselves above the vulgar? The opera, — in other words, there is no national theatre.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The Bee-hive was a two-act music farce with libretto by John G. Millingen and music by Charles E. Horn.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 17 August 1667

Production: Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody; or, Troubles of Queen Elizabeth, Bridges Street theatre, London, 17 August 1667

Text: At noon home to dinner, and presently my wife and I and Sir W. Pen to the King’s playhouse, where the house extraordinary full; and there was the King and Duke of York to see the new play, “Queen Elizabeth’s Troubles and the History of Eighty Eight.” I confess I have sucked in so much of the sad story of Queen Elizabeth, from my cradle, that I was ready to weep for her sometimes; but the play is the most ridiculous that sure ever come upon the stage; and, indeed, is merely a shew, only shews the true garbe of the Queen in those days, just as we see Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth painted; but the play is merely a puppet play, acted by living puppets. Neither the design nor language better; and one stands by and tells us the meaning of things: only I was pleased to see Knipp dance among the milkmaids, and to hear her sing a song to Queen Elizabeth; and to see her come out in her night-gowne with no lockes on, but her bare face and hair only tied up in a knot behind; which is the comeliest dress that ever I saw her in to her advantage.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The play he saw was Thomas Heywood‘s 1605 If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody; or, Troubles of Queen Elizabeth, performed at Bridges Street theatre. Heywood’s play was in two parts; Pepys saw part one. Knipp is the actress Elizabeth Knepp, frequently mentioned in the diary.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/08/17

Boswell for the Defence

Source: William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell for the Defence: 1769-1774 (London: William Heinemann, 1960), p. 238

Production: George Colman the elder, The Man of Business, and William O’Brien, Cross Purposes, Edinburgh, 16 July 1774

Text: Saturday 16 July [1774]: … At six I had a hackney-coach which carried Mrs. Montgomerie, Claud, my wife, and me to the play. There was just forty people in the boxes and pit. The play was The Man of Business, and the farce, Cross Purposes. It was wonderful to see with what spirit the players performed. In one view it was more agreeable tonight than being at a crowded play. One could attend fully to what passed on the stage, whereas in a great audience the attention is distracted and one has a great deal to do in behaving properly. The difference was the same as viewing a country when upon a calm horse at a slow walk or viewing it upon a fiery horse at a gallop, when you must attend to the reins and to your seat. But the laughable passages did not go off so well as in a crowd, for laughter is augmented by sympathetic power. Supped quietly at home.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Lord Auchinleck. The plays he saw were the comedy The Man of Business by George Colman the Elder and the afterpiece Cross-Purposes by the actor William O’Brien, both men being known to Boswell. I have not been able to identify the small theatre Boswell visited.

Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time

‘Mrs. Hopkins & Mr. Garrick in the Character of Queen Gertrude and Hamlet’, Late 18th century [1774?], via Folgerpedia

Source: Extracts from Walter Herries Pollock, ‘Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time’, Longman’s Magazine (August 1885), pp. 371-375, translated from two letters by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, originally published in German in the periodical Deutsches Museum, November 1776

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2 and 12 December 1774

Text: Now, my dear B., if, after what I have told you, you have been able to picture a Garrick to yourself, follow me with him in one or two scenes. To-day, because I am somewhat in the humour for it, I will take the one out of Hamlet where the Ghost appears to him. You know this scene already from Mr. Partridge’s excellent description in Fielding. My description will not make the other superfluous, but only explain it.

Hamlet appears in black attire, the only one, alas, which is still worn in the whole court, for his poor father, who has been scarcely dead a couple of months. Horatio and Marcellus accompany him in uniform. They await the Ghost. Hamlet has folded his arms and pulled his hat over his eyes. It is a cold night, and just twelve o’clock. The theatre is darkened, and the whole audience as still and the faces as motionless as if they had been painted on the walls of the house. At the extreme end of the theatre one might have heard a pin drop. Suddenly as Hamlet goes rather far up the stage somewhat to the left, with his back to the audience, Horatio starts. “Look, my lord, it comes,” says he, pointing to the right where the Ghost is standing immovable, ere one is even aware of it. At these words Garrick turns suddenly round, and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with trembling knees, his hat falls to the ground, both arms—especially the left—are nearly extended to the full, the hand as high as the head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, the fingers spread out and the mouth open. There he remains standing, with legs far apart, but still in a graceful attitude, as if electrified, supported by his friends. His features express such horror that I felt a repeated shudder pass over me before he began to speak. The almost appalling silence of the assembly, which preceded this scene and made one feel scarcely safe in one’s seat, probably contributed not a little to the effect. At last he speaks, not with the beginning but with the end of a breath, and says in a trembling voice “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” words which complete whatever may yet be wanting in this scene to make it one of the sublimest and most terrifying of which, perhaps the stage is capable. The Ghost beckons him; then you should see him, with his eyes still fixed upon the Ghost, while yet speaking to his friends, break loose from them, although they warn him not to follow, and hold him fast. But at last, his patience exhausted, he faces them, and with great violence tears himself away, and, with a swiftness which makes one shudder draws his sword on them, saying, “By heavens, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.” Then, turning to the Ghost,’ he holds his sword out: “Go on; I’ll follow thee;” and the Ghost moves off. Hamlet remains standing still, his sword extended before him, to gain more distance; and when the audience have lost sight of the Ghost, he begins to follow him slowly, at times stopping, and then going on again, but always with his sword extended, his eyes fixed on the Ghost, with dishevelled hair and breathless, until he, too, is lost behind the scenes. You may easily imagine what loud applause accompanies this exit. It begins as soon as the Ghost moves off, and lasts until Hamlet likewise disappears.

… In the fine soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” &c, Garrick is completely overpowered by the tears of just grief for a virtuous father, for whom a frivolous mother no longer wears mourning, nor even feels grief, at a time when every parasite of the court should still be wearing black—the most unrestrained of all tears, perhaps because they are the only alleviation which in such a struggle between one duty and another duty an honest heart can procure. Of the words, “so excellent a king,” the last word is quite inaudible; you only perceive it by the motion of the mouth, which closes immediately afterwards firmly, and trembling with agitation, as if to repress with his lips the only too clear indication of the grief which might unman him. This way of shedding tears, which shows the whole burden of inward grief, as well as the manly soul suffering under it, carries one irresistibly away. At the end of the soliloquy he mixes just anger with his grief; and once, when he strikes out violently with his arm to give emphasis to a word in his indignation, the word (to the surprise of the audience) remains unuttered, choked by emotion, and only follows after a few seconds, when tears begin to flow. My neighbour and I, who had not yet exchanged a word, looked at each other and spoke. It was irresistible.

… Hamlet, who, as I have already reminded you, is in mourning, appears here with thick, loosened hair, some of it hanging over one shoulder, he having already begun to play the madman; one of his black stockings is half-way down his leg, showing the white understocking, and a noose of red garter hangs down the middle of the calf. Thus attired, he steps slowly forward in deep thought, supporting his chin with his right hand, and the elbow of the right with the left, looking on one side on the ground in a dignified manner. Here, taking his right hand away from his chin, but, if I mistake not, still holding it supported by the left, he utters the words “To be or not to be” softly; but they are everywhere audible, on account of the great stillness, and not through the peculiar gift of the man, as some of the papers state.

I must here make a little observation on the text. In the fourth line of this soliloquy some propose reading “against assailing troubles” instead of “against a sea of troubles,” because arms cannot be taken against a sea. Mr. Garrick nevertheless says, “against a sea of troubles.”

The graveyard scene is suppressed at Drury Lane. At Covent Garden it is still kept. This suppression Garrick should not have introduced. Such a splendid old piece, with all its fine characteristic raw strength, would still in these mealy-mouthed times, when even the language of nature begins to give way to conventional babble, have broken the fall of it even if it had not been able to uphold it.

I must pass over some of the most beautiful scenes, among others that in which he instructs the actors, as well as that in which he thunders into his mother’s heart the comparison between his uncle and his father when the Ghost appears; one blow upon another before one has yet recovered.

Comments: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was a German physicist and philosopher. A keen Anglophile, he visited England in 1770 and over 1774-1775. His celebrated account of David Garrick‘s performance in Hamlet (original diary entries reveal that he saw the production on 2 and 12 December 1774) was written in two letters to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie in 1775 and originally published in Boie’s literary periodical Deutsches Museum in November 1776.

Links: Copy of English translation at Hathi Trust
Copy of German original at Hathi Trust