1770s

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

Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean

Source: [John Rickman], Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, on Discovery; performed in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 (London, E. Newbery, 1781), pp. 142-143

Text: As soon as dinner was over, which admits of no ceremony, we were conducted to the theatre, where a company of players were in readiness to perform a dramatical entertainment. The drama was regularly divided into three acts: the first consisted of dancing and dumb shew; the second of comedy; which to those who understood the language was very laughable, as Omai and the natives appeared highly diverted he whole time; the last was a musical piece, in which the young princesses were the sole performers. There were between the acts some feats of arms exhibited. The combatants were armed with lances and clubs. One made the attack, the other stood upon the defensive. He who made the attack brandished his lance, and either threw, pushed or used it in aid of his club. He who was upon the defensive, stuck the point of his lance in the ground, in an oblique direction, so that the upper part rose above his head, and by observing the eye of his enemy, parried his blows or his strokes by the motion of his lance. By his dexterity at this manoeuvre he turned aside the lance, and it was rare that he was hurt by the club. If his antagonist struck at his legs, he shewed his agility by jumping over the club; and if at his head, he was no less nimble in crouching under it. Their dexterity consisted chiefly in the defence, otherwise the combat might have been fatal, which always ended in good humour.

These entertainments, which generally last about four hours, are really diverting; their dancing has been much improved by copying the European manner. In the hornpipe they really excel their masters: they add contortions of the face and muscles to the nimbleness of the foot, that are inimitable, and must, in spite of our gravity, provoke laughter; their country dances too are well regulated; and they have dances of their own, that are equal to those at our best theatres; their comedy seems to consist of some simple story, made laughable by the manner of delivery, something in the style of the merry andrews formerly at Bartholomew fair; and their singing is very simple, and might be much improved. Had Omai been of a theatrical cast, he doubtless might have very much improved their stage; for their performers appear inferior to none in the powers of imitation.

The play being over, and night approaching, our commanders took their leave, after inviting the king and his attendants to dine on board the ships. We were conducted to the water-side in the same manner as we approached the palace, and were attended by the king and royal family.

Comments: John Rickman (1737-1818) was Second Lieutenant on the explorer Captain James Cook’s third and final voyage, 1776-1780, to New Zealand, the Hawaiian islands and the Bering Strait, in covert search of a North West Passage. Cook was killed on their return to the Hawaiian islands. Rickman kept a log of the journey which was published anonymously in 1781. This passage comes from the visit paid by Cook’s two ships, Resolution and Discovery, to Tahiti in August 1777 (the official purpose of the voyage was to return the Pacific islander Omai, who had been to England, to his home). Cook had first visited Tahiti in 1769, and again in 1773-74.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 254-255

Production: John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, Covent Garden, London, 4 October 1776

Text: In the evening went to the Pit at Covent Garden to see the celebrated Miss Catley perform Lucy in the Beggars Opera. She sings well & gives many of the songs uncommon expression, but she is vulgar to a degree even what might be expected from the character & has all the appearance of an impudent battered woman of the Town. Polly by Miss Brown, lately come upon the stage, a sweet pretty girl & I think a good singer. It seems her father is much against her appearing upon the Stage & had her seized this evening just before the play began. This had such an effect upon her that soon after she came on first, before she had spoken three words, she fainted & was obliged to be carried out, but she recovered & did very well.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. Miss Catley is Ann Catley (1745-1789). Polly Peachum was played by Ann Brown, later Ann Cargill (1760-1784), whose romantic, short life ended with a shipwreck of the Isles of Scilly.

The Letters of Ignatius Sancho

Source: Ignatius Sancho to John Meheux, 9 October 1779, letter no. 109, in Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt (eds.), The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), p. 193

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, September or October 1779

Text: But as I was saying – for I hate prolixity – as I was saying above Mr. Ireland (in imitation of the odd soul I have laboured to describe) – came in person twice) wishing to do me honor as well as pleasure – came in person twice, to insist accompanying he and she and two more, to see Mr. Henderson take possession of the throne of Richard – into the boxes – (I believe box is properer) – We went – the house as full, just as it could be, and no fuller – as hot as it was possible to bear – or rather hotter. – Now do you really and truly conceive what I mean? – Alas, there are some stupid souls, formed of such phlegmatic, adverse materials, that you might sooner strike conception into a flannel petticoat – or out of one – (now keep your temper, I beg, sweet Sir) than convince their simple craniums that six and seven make thirteen. It was a daring undertaking – and Henderson was really awed with the idea of the great man, whose very robes he was to wear – and whose throne he was to usurp. – But to give him his due – he acquitted himself well – tolerably well – He will play it much better next time – and the next better still. Rome was not built in six weeks – and, trust me, a Garrick will not be formed under seven years. – I supped with his Majesty and Mr. and Mrs. Ireland, where good-nature and good-sense mixed itself with the most cheerful welcome.

Comments: Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-1780) was a black British author and composer, whose posthumously-published letters gained a wide readership. John Henderson (1747-1785) was an actor whose rivalry with David Garrick is the source of Sancho’s satirical humour (Garrick had retired from acting in 1776). He first appeared in the title role of Richard III at Drury Lane on 7 October 1777. There was a production of the play at Drury Lane in September 1779, but it did not feature Henderson. I cannot explain the discrepancy over dates. John Meheux was an artist friend of Sancho’s.