1780s

The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney, Madame d’Arblay

Source: Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (ed.), The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney, Madame d’Arblay (Boston: Little, Brown, 1910), vol. 1 pp. 356-357

Production: Thomas Holcroft, Seduction, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 22 March 1787

Text: Once about this time I went to a play myself, which surely I may live long enough and never forget. It was “Seduction,” a very clever piece, but containing a dreadful picture of vice and dissipation in high life, written by Mr. Miles Andrews, with an epilogue Oh, such an epilogue! I was listening to it with uncommon attention, from a compliment paid in it to Mrs. Montagu, among other female writers; but imagine what became of my attention when I suddenly was struck with these lines, or something like them:

“Let sweet Cecilia gain your just applause,
Whose every passion yields to Reason’s laws.”

To hear, wholly unprepared and unsuspicious, such lines in a theatre seated in a Royal Box and with the whole Royal Family and their suite immediately opposite me was it not a singular circumstance? To describe my embarrassment would be impossible. My whole head was leaning forward, with my opera-glass in my hand, examining Miss Farren, who spoke the epilogue. Instantly I shrunk back, so astonished and so ashamed of my public situation, that I was almost ready to take to my heels and run, for it seemed as if I were there purposely in that conspicuous place –

“To list attentive to my own applause.”

The King immediately raised his opera-glass to look at me, laughing heartily the Queen’s presently took the same direction all the Princesses looked up, and all the attendants, and all the maids of honor! I protest I was never more at a loss what to do with myself: nobody was in the front row with me but Miss Goldsworthy, who, instantly seeing how I was disconcerted, prudently and good-naturedly forbore taking any notice of me. I sat as far back as I could, and kept my fan against the exposed profile for the rest of the night, never once leaning forward, nor using my glass.

None of the Royal Family spoke to me upon this matter till a few days after; but I heard from Mrs. Delany they had all declared themselves sorry for the confusion it had caused me. And some time after, the Queen could not forbear saying, “I hope, Miss Burney, you minded the epilogue the other night?” And the King very comically said, “I took a peep at you! I could not help that. I wanted to see how you looked when your father first discovered your writing and now I think I know!”

The Princesses all said something, and the kind Princess Elizabeth, in particular, declared she had pitied me with all her heart, for being so situated when such a compliment was made.

Comments: Frances Burney (1752-1840), known after her marriage as Madame d’Arblay, was an English novelist and playwright. She was appointed Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, consort to King George III, in 1785. Seduction was written by Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), English dramatist and poet. The epilogue was provided by playwright and later MP Miles Peter Andrews (1742-1818), and includes these lines among some in praise of women authors (with an ellipsis where one word is unclear):

And oft I […]t soft Cecilia win your praise;
While Reason guides the clue, in Fancy’s maze.

Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia had been published in 1782. The epilogue was delivered by actress Elizabeth Farren. The performance at the Theatre Royal on 22 March 1887 was by royal command. Opera glasses at this date would have been small monocular telescopes.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive
Copy of The Seduction at University of Oxford Text Archive

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 299

Production: Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, Drury Lane, London, 21 October 1782

Text: Mon, Oct. 21. At Drury Lane to see Mrs Siddons, the celebrated actress just transplanted from Bath. She is by no means equal to a Yates or a Barry, but having said this I allow she has great merit. She enters into her part with infinite judgement, energy & propriety. Her action is good, her voice pleasing. She excels in the pathetic. Her Isabella in the Fatal Marriage this evening drew tears from every eye of sensibility. A pretty figure of the middle size, fine eyes & a melancholy complacency of feature … I almost wish I had not staid to see the Alchemist now cut down into an entertainment of two acts. It hurt me to see Dade play Abel Drugger. Alas! O Garrick, we shall never see thy like again.

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. The Fatal Marriage was a 1694 play by Thomas Southerne, which David Garrick adapted in 1757 as Isabella; or the Fatal Marriage. The Yates and Barry against whom Neville judges Sarah Siddons are Mary Ann Yates and Ann Street Barry. ‘Dade’ is the comic actor James William Dodd.

Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay

Source: Diary and letters of Madame d’Arblay, vol. III (1786-87) (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1854), pp. 274-275

Production: Elizabeth Inchbald, Such Things Are, Covent Garden, London, 19 February 1787

Text: Monday, February 19th [1787]
The Queen sent for me as soon as we arrived in town, and told me she had ordered the Box, that we might go to the play. There is a Box appropriated for this purpose, whenever her Majesty chooses to command it: ’tis the Balcony-Box, just opposite to the King’s Equerries, and consequently in full view of their Majesties and all their suite. Miss Goldsworthy, Miss Gomme, and Miss Planta, made the party, and Colonel Goldsworthy was our esquire.

The play was new, ‘Such Things Are,’ by Mrs. Inchbald; and it has great merit, I think, both in the serious and the comic parts.

It was a great pleasure to me to see the reception given by the public to the Royal Family: it was always, indeed, pleasant to me; but now it has so strong an additional interest, that to be in the house when they are present makes them become half the entertainment of the evening to me.

I had also, this day, a very gracious message from the King, to inquire if I should like to have my name down among the subscribers to the Tottenham Street Oratorio. Doubtless I accepted this condescension very willingly.

At night I had the gratification of talking over the play, in all its parts, with the Queen, who has a liberality and a justice in her judgments that make all discussions both easy and instructive with her.

Comments: Frances Burney (1752-1840), known after her marriage as Madame d’Arblay, was an English novelist and playwright. She was appointed Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, consort to King George III, in 1785. Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821) was an English novelist, playwright and actress. This royal command performance of Such Things Are was produced at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive