United Kingdom

Discourse of the English Stage

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Hannah More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 28 December 1666

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

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

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

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

A Persian at the Court of King George

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

Text: 14 May [1810]

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

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

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

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

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

The Dramatic Censor

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Gielgud’s Letters

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

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

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

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

Daniel Webster in England

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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