United Kingdom

Memoirs of John Quincy Adams

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 27 February 1668

Production: Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, The Virgin-Martyr, King’s House, London, 27 February 1668

Text: All the morning at the office, and at noon home to dinner, and thence with my wife and Deb. to the King’s House, to see “The Virgin Martyr,” the first time it hath been acted a great while: and it is mighty pleasant; not that the play is worth much, but it is finely acted by Becke Marshall. But that which did please me beyond any thing in, the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me: and makes me resolve to practice wind-musique, and to make my wife do the like.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The Virgin-Martyr, set during the period of the Roman emperor Diocletian, is a tragedy co-written by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, published in 1622. Pepys first saw the play on 16 February 1661 (“a good but too sober a play for the company”), then three times in 1668, above, on 2 March 1668 and 6 May 1668, in each case because of his love of the music. Rebecca (Becke) Marshall (dates not known) was one of the leading actresses of the Restoration period, mentioned several times by Pepys alongside her actress sister Anne Marshall.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1668/02/27

Journey Through England and Scotland

The Beargarden and the Rose Theatre, from Norden’s Map of London, 1593, via Wikipedia

Source: Lupold von Wedel, extract from travel account given in Lawrence Manley (ed.), London in the Age of Shakespeare: An Anthology ((university Park/London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), p. 34, originally published in English as G. von Bülow (trans.), ‘Journey Through England and Scotland Made by Lupold von Wedel in the Years 1584 and 1585’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (London 1895)

Text: … The Thames is crossed by a bridge, leading to another town on the other side of the water called Sedorck [i.e. Southwark]. This bridge is built of stone, 470 paces long, but its upper part has not the appearance of a bridge, being entirely set ine houses filled with all kinds of wares, very nice to look at. …

On the 23rd we went across the bridge to the above-mentioned town. There is a round building three storeys high, in which are kept about a hundred large English dogs, with separate wooden kennels for each of them. These dogs were made to fight singly with three bears, the second bear being larger than the first, and the third larger than the second. After this a horse was brought in and chased by the dogs, and at last a bull, who defended himself bravely. The next was, that a number of men and women came forward from a separate compartment, dancing, conversing, and fighting with each other; also a man who threw some white bread among the crowd, that scrambled for it. Right over the middle of the place a rose was fixed, this rose being set on fire by a rocket: suddenly lots of apples and pears fell out of it down upon the people standing below. Whilst the people were scrambling for the apples, some rockets were made to fall down upon them out of the rose, which caused a great fright but amused the spectators. After this, rockets and other fireworks came flying out of all corners, and that was the end of the play. …

Comments: Lupold von Wedel (1554-1615?) was a German mercenary and travel writer. He travelled widely, visiting England and Scotland between August 1584 to May 1585. Wedel presumably visited the Beargarden, a theatre-like round structure on Bankside. The entertainment following the baiting starts as a dance of some kind, but thereafter becomes strange.

On Actors and the Art of Acting

Playbill from The Theatrical Observer, 16 November 1832

Source: George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1875), pp. 16-17

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Drury Lane Theatre, London, November 1832

Text: Kean’s range of expression, as already hinted, was very limited. His physical aptitudes were such as confined him to the strictly tragic passions and for these he was magnificently endowed. Small and insignificant in figure, he could; at times become impressively commanding by the lion-like power and grace of his bearing. I remember, the last time I saw him play Othello, how puny he appeared beside Macready, until in the third act, when roused by Iago’s taunts and insinuations, he moved towards him with a gouty hobble, seized him by the throat, and, in a well-known explosion, “Villain! be sure you prove,” &c., seemed to swell into a stature which made Macready appear small. On that very evening, when gout made it difficult for him to display his accustomed grace, when a drunken hoarseness had ruined the once matchless voice, such was the irresistible pathos—manly, not tearful—which vibrated in his tones and expressed itself in look and gestures, that old men leaned their heads upon their arms and fairly sobbed. It was, one must confess, a patchy performance considered as a whole; some parts were miserably tricky, others misconceived, others gabbled over in haste to reach the “points”; but it was irradiated with such flashes that I would again risk broken ribs for the chance of a good place in the pit to see anything like it.

Comments: George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was an English literary critic and philosopher, best-known now as the partner of the author George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). The ailing Edmund Kean, reaching the end of his career and his life, and William Macready disliked one another. Kean had previously avoided acting opposite his younger rival. Macready complained at how Kean upstaged him by taking up unfair positions on the stage. Kean died just a few months later, on 15 May 1833.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 23 February 1663

Productions: Robert Stapylton, The Slighted Maid, Lincoln Inn’s Field Theatre, and John Dryden, The Wild Gallant, London, 23 February 1663

Text: At home I found Mr. Creed with my wife, and so he dined with us, I finding by a note that Mr. Clerke in my absence hath left here, that I am free; and that he hath stopped all matters in Court; I was very glad of it, and immediately had a light thought of taking pleasure to rejoice my heart, and so resolved to take my wife to a play at Court to-night, and the rather because it is my birthday, being this day thirty years old, for which let me praise God.

While my wife dressed herself, Creed and I walked out to see what play was acted to-day, and we find it “The Slighted Mayde.” But, Lord! to see that though I did know myself to be out of danger, yet I durst not go through the street, but round by the garden into Tower Street.

By and by took coach, and to the Duke’s house, where we saw it well acted, though the play hath little good in it, being most pleased to see the little girl dance in boy’s apparel, she having very fine legs, only bends in the hams, as I perceive all women do. The play being done, we took coach and to Court, and there got good places, and saw “The Wilde Gallant,” performed by the King’s house, but it was ill acted, and the play so poor a thing as I never saw in my life almost, and so little answering the name, that from beginning to end, I could not, nor can at this time, tell certainly which was the Wild Gallant. The King did not seem pleased at all, all the whole play, nor any body else, though Mr. Clerke whom we met here did commend it to us. My Lady Castlemaine was all worth seeing tonight, and little Steward. Mrs. Wells do appear at Court again, and looks well; so that, it may be, the late report of laying the dropped child to her was not true.

It being done, we got a coach and got well home about 12 at night. Now as my mind was but very ill satisfied with these two plays themselves, so was I in the midst of them sad to think of the spending so much money and venturing upon the breach of my vow, which I found myself sorry for, I bless God, though my nature would well be contented to follow the pleasure still. But I did make payment of my forfeiture presently, though I hope to save it back again by forbearing two plays at Court for this one at the Theatre, or else to forbear that to the Theatre which I am to have at Easter. But it being my birthday and my day of liberty regained to me, and lastly, the last play that is likely to be acted at Court before Easter, because of the Lent coming in, I was the easier content to fling away so much money.

So to bed.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The two comedies that he saw were Sir Robert Stapylton‘s The Slighted Maid and John Dryden‘s The Wild Gallant (his first play). Barbara Villiers, or the Countess Castlemaine, was a mistress of King Charles II. Pepys had taken a vow at the end of 1661 not to go to the theatre any longer, but regularly broke it.

Links: www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1663/02/23

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kemble as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

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. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Pantomime

Source: ‘The Pantomime – Boxes, Pit and Gallery’, Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News, 16 January 1869

Comments: The Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News was a British newspaper of the 1860s which reported on sports of all kinds and theatre productions. It was notable for its illustrations from wood engravings. The name of the artist of this illustration is not given.

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), vol. 2, pp. 58-59

Text: As we passed the theatre we decided to enter, and hear Miss Stephens sing Scotch ballads to a Scottish audience. Much to our surprise we found the theatre so empty that we obtained seats in the front row. This led to some conversation afterwards relative to the sobriety in the search for amusement which is so characteristic of the people of Edinburgh. Some years ago Catalani gave a concert here. Every place was crowded, and she reaped a rich harvest. The next year she was tempted to come again, and the contrast was most striking; no one who had heard her before went again. When asked the reason, they replied that they had heard her. There was no satire in this, for the same thing occurred with Miss O’Neill. I saw her play, literally, to empty benches, and was able to obtain a seat in the front row. This is the more remarkable, as at her first visit the pressure was so great that people were fainting. All the boxes had been taken previous to her arrival in Edinburgh. I never admired Miss Stephens so much as on this occasion. The small theatre was favourable to her articulation, and I did not lose a word of that pathetic ballad “Auld Robin Gray,” which was rapturously encored, and no wonder, for she sings it with a degree of pathos difficult to describe. There was not a note, nor an intonation, which did not express in its fullest sense the pure feelings and sentiments of that most exquisite piece of poetry. I have always been of opinion that “Auld Robin Gray” affords the best example of female virtue, based on principle and sensibility, to be found in the English language. In a pure mind, like Lady Anne Lindsay’s, the spear of Ithuriel would instantly dissipate the sophism of Rousseau, and depict in their true colours and in their natural deformity the vaunted perfections of his Héloïse.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. Catherine Stephens, Countess of Essex (1794-1822) was an English concert and opera singer and actress. Eliza O’Neill was an English tragic actress (1791-1872). ‘Auld Robin Gray’ is a ballad by Lady Anne Lindsay. The Edinburgh theatre was presumably the Theatre Royal in Princes Street.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Mr. Pope

‘Mr. Pope as Hotspur’, via LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/3491×2 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Source: Leigh Hunt, ‘Mr. Pope’, in William Archer and Robert W. Lowe (eds.), Dramatic Essays [by] Leigh Hunt (London, W. Scott, 1894), pp. 16-21. Originally published in Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, 1807

Text: When I place Mr. Pope immediately after Mrs. Siddons, everybody will see I do not criticise the actors according to their rank. But it is for the sake of contrast. If we have just had an example of almost perfect tragedy, we have now an instance of every fault that can make it not only imperfect but disgusting. Mr. Pope has not one requisite to an actor but a good voice, and this he uses so unmercifully on all occasions that its value is lost, and he contrives to turn it into a defect. His face is as hard, as immovable, and as void of meaning as an oak wainscot; his eyes, which should endeavour to throw some meaning into his vociferous declamation, he generally contrives to keep almost shut; and what would make another actor merely serious is enough to put him in a passion. In short, when Shakspeare wrote his description of “a robustious fellow, who tears a passion to tatters,” one would suppose that he had been shown, by some supernatural means, the future race of actors, as Macbeth had a prophetic view of Banquo’s race, and that the robustious phantom was Mr. Pope. Here is an actor, then, without face, expression, or delivery, and yet this complication of negative qualities finds means to be clapped in the theatre and panegyrised in the newspapers. This inconsistency must be explained. As to the newspapers, and their praise of this gentleman, I do not wish to repeat all the prevailing stories. Who does not know their corruptions? There is, however, an infallible method of obtaining a clap from the galleries, and there is an art known at the theatre by the name of clap-trappings which Mr. Pope has shown great wisdom in studying. It consists in nothing more than in gradually raising the voice as the speech draws to a conclusion, making an alarming outcry on the last four or five lines, or suddenly dropping them into a tremulous but energetic undertone, and with a vigorous jerk of the right arm rushing off the stage. All this astonishes the galleries; they are persuaded it must be something very fine, because it is so important and so unintelligible, and they clap for the sake of their own reputation.

One might be apt to wonder at Mr. Pope’s total want of various expression, when his merit as an artist is considered. It should seem that the same imitative observation, which gives so natural an elegance to his portraits on canvas, should enliven and adorn his portraits on the stage: that the same elegant conception which enables him to throw grace into the attitudes and meaning into the eyes of others, should inspire his action with variety and his looks with intelligence.

It is in the acknowledgment of gesture and attitude, but more particularly in the variation of countenance, in the adaption of look to feeling, that the actor is best known. Mr. Pope, in his general style, has but two gestures, which follow each other in monotonous alternation, like the jerks of a toy-shop harlequin: one is a mere extension of the arms, and is used on all occasions of candour, of acknowledgment, of remonstrance, and of explanation; the other, for occasions of vehemence or of grandeur, is an elevation of the arms, like the gesture of Raphael’s St. Paul preaching at Athens, an action which becomes the more absurd on common occasions, from its
real sublimity. If Mr. Pope, however, is confined to two expressions in his gesture, he has but two expressions in his look: a flat indifference, which is used on all sober occasions, and an angry frown, which is used on all impassioned ones. With these two looks he undertakes to represent all the passions, gentle as well as violent; he is like a quack who, with a phial in each hand, undertakes to perform every possible wonder, while the only thing to be wondered at is his cheating the mob. The best character he performs is Othello, because he performs it in a mask: for when an actor’s face is not exactly seen, an audience is content to supply by its own imagination the want of expression, just as in reading a book we figure to ourselves the countenance of the persons interested. But when we are presented with the real countenance, we are disappointed if our imagination is not assisted in its turn; the picture presented to our eyes should animate the picture presented to our mind; if either of them differ, or if the former is less lively than the latter, a sensation of discord is produced, and destroys the effect of nature, which is always harmonious.

The pain we feel at bad acting seems, indeed, to be entirely the result of a want of harmony. We are pleased when the actor’s external action corresponds with the action of his mind, when his eye answers his heart, when all we see is the animated picture of all we feel: we are displeased whenever the passion and the expression are at variance, when the countenance does not become a second language to the dialogue, when moderate tones express vehement emotions and when vehement tones express moderate emotions, when, in short, Mr. Pope is not Rolla or Romeo but Mr. Pope. A musician who tells us that he is going to play a melancholy movement, and then dashes his harp or his piano in a fury, cannot disappoint us more than this actor, when he raises from language merely sorrowful an expression of boisterous passion. The character of Hotspur has been reckoned a proper one for Mr. Pope, because it is loud and violent; these are good reasons certainly, and we would rather hear him in Hotspur than in Hamlet, for noise, like any other enjoyment, is delightful in its proper season only. But to act Hotspur well is a mark of no great talent; of all expressions, violence is the most easily affected, because the conception of violence has no sensation of restraint, it has no feelings to hide or to repress, and no niceties of action to study. The gentler passions give us leisure to examine them, we can follow every variation of feeling and every change of expression; but here we have leisure for nothing; everything is rapid and confused; we are in the condition of a man who should attempt to count the spokes of a wheel in a chariot-race.

Mr. Pope, in short, may be considered as an example of the little value of a good voice unaccompanied with expression, while Mr. Kemble is a proof how much may be done by an expressive countenance and manner with the worst voice in the world.

But perhaps as I can say nothing of Mr. Pope as a tragic actor, I may be expected to say something of him as a comic one, for he does act in comedy. Any one, however, who examines this double gift, will discover that to act in comedy and to be a comic actor are two very different things. Mr. Kemble performs in comedy, but who will call Mr. Kemble a comic actor? Who will reckon up the comic actors, and say, “We have Bannister, and Lewis, and Munden, and Kemble?” If Mr. Pope acts in sentimental comedy, what is called sentimental comedy is nothing more than a mixture of tragedy and comedy, or, if Dr. Johnson’s definition is to be allowed, it is sometimes entire tragedy, for he calls tragedy “a dramatic representation of a serious action.” There may be very often a serious character in humorous comedies, such as a sober merchant, a careful father, or one of those useless useful friends who serve as a kind of foil to a gay hero; but the actor who performs these characters never excites our livelier feelings or our mirth, and therefore cannot be called a comic actor. Lord Townley, for instance, in The Provoked Husband is merely a tragic character who has stepped into comedy: Mr. Kemble represents Lord Townley with much gravity and stateliness; yet nobody in the pit ever said at seeing this character, “Really that is very comic!” It is necessary to a comic actor that he should be able to excite our laughter, or at least our smiles ; but Mr. Pope never excites either, at any rate not designedly. It is for this reason that he has been placed among the tragedians, and that Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Henry Johnston, Mr. Murray, and Mr. Siddons will be placed among them too. All these gentlemen might undoubtedly be called comic actors, as Robin Hood’s companion, who was seven feet high, was called Little John; or we might say such a man was as comic as Mr. Kemble or Mr. Henry Johnston, just as we say such a thing is as smooth as a file. But upon plain subjects I would rather be plain spoken.

Comments: Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was a British essayist, journalist and poet, and one of the leading dramatic critics of his time. Alexander Pope (1763-1835) was an Irish actor and painter who was a regular member of the company at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Indirect Journey

Postcard image of Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, 1906, from Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 55-58

Text: One of the great joys of my life occurred during that holiday in 1912. It came when my father bought me a good, strong walking-stick from a shop on the north side of the town, just opposite Peasholm Lake. This was the first tangible expression of the hope that some time I should be able to walk more or less purposefully. In fact, with this stick I found that I was able to walk for five or six yards provided that the road was perfectly flat. An immense sense of liberation flooded over me. Years later (at a party, of course) I saw Elizabeth for the first time. As she came down a few steps into the room in which I was sitting there flashed into my mind
Henry Esmond’s first Vision of the radiant Beatrix descending the staircase in the home of the Castlewoods. I felt then as if a new planet had swum into my ken, like Keats opening Chapman’s Homer. I had the same feeling when my father bought the walking-stick, the first I ever had.

It held a promise of a world which contained such marvels as the glitteringly white and elegant Spa; the fascinating display of all that Yorkshire held to be high fashion every Sunday morning in what was known in those days as the Church Parade, when the rich visitors to Scarborough slowly walked down the hill from church in their finest attire, whilst we lined up on the pavement to gape at them in wonder and envy; the daily concerts held on the Spa conducted by the flamboyant Alastair Maclean, who, in his cloak and wide-brimmed hat, rather resembled the Toulouse-Lautrec posters of Aristide Bruant, but who was not, if he encountered my wheel-chair in the streets of Scarborough, above gravely saluting me; and best of all there were Catlin’s Royal Pierrots on the south foreshore. What young Gibson had begun, Catlin’s Royal Pierrots continued, especially one of its members called McAllister.

It was said that Mr Catlin, who himself appeared with the company, and despite advancing middle age did a sensational somersault at every performance, had begun his entertainment career on the sands in a fit-up booth, but when I knew his magical organization he had his own splendid theatre. This was quite an inspiration to me. It told me what opportunities were open to talent, and it occurred to me even in that early part of my life that if Mr Catlin had been able to force the door of success in his most improbable ascension, I might be able to do something of the sort myself. Not for nothing was I the nephew of Jabez, Frank, and Tom.

The Catlin shows were, in the first half of the programme, played in pierrot costume: peaked hat and pom-poms. It was this that brought me to the height of ecstasy, for I did not like the second half, in which the men wore dinner jackets and the ladies long evening dresses, anything like so much. All the players were delightful; they could, it seemed to me, sing and dance with miraculous skill, but one of them, the McAllister (I think his Christian name was Andrew) whom I have already mentioned, particularly entranced me. I was already convinced that Martin-Harvey was the greatest of actors, but after all I had only seen his genius in the pale reflections of the amiable Gibson, whilst McAllister was there on the stage, alive, Vital, amusing and overwhelmingly pathetic. Vesta Tilley and Little Tich were far more famous than he, for they were London stars, and McAllister was only a seaside entertainer, but he was the first actor I ever saw who could bring a lump to the throats of the audience, and send that shiver down the spine which many years later A.E. Housman said was the only sign by which he recognized that he was in the presence of great poetry.

McAllister was, however, funny as well as sad. He did two turns, in the first of which he told Scottish stories that doubled me up with laughter. Long afterwards, also in Scarborough, I heard the great Harry Lauder. In comparison with McAllister I found him smug and patronizing, conscious of an eminence which it seemed to me nothing in his performance justified. But McAllister would also do another turn, this time in the King’s English. This was a very serious turn, and it was to me the very summit of McAllister’s achievement. He would work us up into a tremendous passion and excitement with a monologue like ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’, though this was probably somewhat later in his career than my first visit to Scarborough. On that visit he recited ‘His First Long Trousers’. It evoked the ending of childhood, the finish of innocence, the moment when the father ceases to be his son’s protector, and the son takes his first timid and uncertain steps in the world on his own. It was wondrously sentimental, and those who themselves have no capacity for touching the feelings of an audience may well despise it. In this I cannot but consider them unwise. It is foolish to scoff at a kind of theatre for which you have no talent. The simple fact is that when McAllister recited ‘His First Long Trousers’ not only did tears pour down my face, but I understood better both the danger and the excitement of life.

There was something else about McAllister that profoundly moved me and deeply influenced me when I became a drama critic: he was not only a powerful artist but he was also a delicate one. He used to deliver his comedy talk wearing his peaked hat, but he recited his serious pieces bareheaded. His taking off his hat and his removal of the black skull cap underneath it was the first piece of imaginative ritual I ever encountered. I was stirred by this simple gesture of respect for the seriousness and reverence of life: the moment when he doffed his cap was always to me one of the high points of his performance. When in Godspell at Wyndham’s Theatre the clowns did exactly this before representing the Crucifixion, all the emotion I had felt when watching McAllister rushed back upon me. This particular scene (there have been others in other plays) is one of those which my feelings will never allow me to describe in level tones. When I think of it my voice always breaks. McAllister, without knowing it, taught me to appreciate Godspell. That, I think, would not have surprised him. He might have been somewhat more taken aback had he known that it was partly his use of ritual that enabled me to understand Genet. The knowledge might, in fact, have made him sad.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned British theatre critic, whose childhood was spent in Scarborough. Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, led by Will Catlin (real name William Fox) appeared at venues throughout the UK in the late 19th/early 20th century. He became associated in particular with Scarborough, opening the Catlin’s Arcadia venue in the town in 1909. A. ‘Mac’ McAllister was a member of the all-male troupe. The religious rock musical Godspell opened in London in 1971.