1790s

The Torrington Diaries

Source: C. Bruyn Andrews (ed., abridged into one by volume by Fanny Andrews), The Torrington Diaries: A selection from the tours of the Hon. John Byng (later Fifth Viscount Torrington) between the years 1781 and 1794 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode), pp. 375-376

Production: George Colman the Younger and Samuel Arnold, Inkle and Yarico, Biggleswade, 19 July 1791

Text: July 19th … After dinner sent to my Jonas, as it appear’d a very fishable day, and he appointed me to come to him at 4 o’clock. G– soon arrived, with the mare, who now wants grass, and rest, and she shall have them. At 4 o’clock I walk’d to the barber’s, who weaves lines, and wigs, (a connectd trade) and with him walk’d a mile to a pleasant spot; but no fish; the air now turn’d cold, making me repent thus trying the chance of illness. I ask’d him after the players? ‘Why they are still here, Sir; and perform to night’. ‘Then I suppose they are so hampered by debt, that they cannot move, and must stay till pity and forgiveness permit them to go?’ ‘Sir, I believe they are very poor; and that my son, who dresses the company, will never see a penny of payment’. from idleness, or from curiosity, (put charity out of the case) I went again; greater wretchedness is not to be seen! How much they should envy the haymakers. The play was Inkle and Yarico, with variety of other entertainments: it would be right if they were not tolerated. Tho’ they get little, they get all that this town can give; and that is too much by every sixpence: nothing could approach nearer to Hogarth’s Barm, for many faces were seen peeping thro’ the holes of the barn, which we who had paid, and were in the castle, thought unfair, and repulsed these assailants. I sat next to Mr Knight and his niece, but left them at 10 o’clock, when the play finish’d, and half the sports were to come; so this threw me into fashionable hours and I did not retire till 12 o’clock.

Comments: John Byng, Fifth Viscount Torrington (1743-1813) produced several volumes of diaries covering the period 1781–1794, during which he travelled all over England and Wales. During a country tour he stayed at Biggleswade and saw a local troupe of players performing in a barn. Inkle and Yarico was a popular comic opera set in the West Indies, with libretto by George Colman the Younger and music by Samuel Arnold, first performed in 1787.

The Torrington Diaries

Source: C. Bruyn Andrews (ed., abridged into one by volume by Fanny Andrews), The Torrington Diaries: A selection from the tours of the Hon. John Byng (later Fifth Viscount Torrington) between the years 1781 and 1794 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode), pp. 479-480

Production: John Fletcher/William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Drury Lane, London, 14 May 1794

Text: May 14th. My next morning was employ’d in walking about my detestation, London; waiting upon my lawyer; and lounging about till what I thought a good hour of dining: When I put in at the Piazza Coffee House Covent Garden and had the room to myself at such an unatural hour: Thence like an old country put, I adjourned to Drury Lane Playhouse where I enjoy’d the highly wrought exhibition of Mrs Siddons’s performance in Catherine in Henry 8th, altho’ lost and sent to waste in this wild wide theatre, where close observation cannot be maintain’d, nor quick applause received!

Restore me, ye overuling powers to the drama, to the warm close, observant, seats of Old Drury where I may comfortably criticise and enjoy the delights of scenic fancy: These now are past! The nice discriminations, of the actors face, and of the actors feeling, are now all lost in the vast void of the new theatre of Drury Lane.

Garrick – thou didst retire at the proper time – for wer’t thou restor’d to the stage, in vain, would now thy finesse, thy bye play, thy whisper, thy aside, and even thine eye, assist thee.

Thus do I crawl about in London I Where are my old friends? All gone before me!!! Where are thy new ones? Why, they understand me not; they speak a new language, they prescribe fashions, I think they do not understand comforts. ‘Why here is a fine theatre,’ say they? ‘Aye, it may be fine, it may be magnificent; but I neither hear, nor see in it! !’ ‘Thats your misfortune.’ ‘So it is I allow; but not yet my failing.’

‘Does it proceed from the narrowness of my faculties; or the width of your new stage? Answer me that? Is my decrease equal to your increase?’ No; No; fill your stage with monsters – gigantic cars, and long train’d processions – whilst the air vibrates with the sound of trumpets, and kettle drums: These will beat all your actors, and actresses out of the field. Who will listen to, or who can hear the soliloquies of Shakespeare, the inward terrors of the mind-perturbed imaginations and the strugglings of a guilty conscience?

To see a fellow hunting a dagger about the stage; or an old princess wasting in a great chair?

Who will go hereafter to see their tiresome attitudes? To hear them none will attempt, so let us have the battlements, the combat, the sulphur, the torches, the town in flames, and the chorus.

The countryman came home; and went early to bed.

Comments: John Byng, Fifth Viscount Torrington (1743-1813) produced several volumes of diaries covering the period 1781–1794, during which he travelled all over England and Wales. The production of Henry VIII was a redaction of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s original, undertaken by Charles Kemble, who played Cromwell. His sister, Sarah Siddons, played Katherine. Byng saw it at Drury Lane Theatre, London on 14 May 1794. The third theatre on the Drury Lane site had opened on 12 March 1794, having replaced the previous Theatre Royal which closed in 1791. The new theatre could seat 3,611 people, as opposed to the 2,000 offered by its previous incarnation.

Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal

Source: Robert Southey, Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol: Printed by Bulgin and Rosser, for Joseph Cottle, and G.G. and J.Robinson, and Cadell and Davies, London, 1797), pp. 9-13

Text: Letter II. Tuesday Night.

I am just returned from the Spanish Comedy. The Theatre is painted with a muddy light blue, and a dirty yellow, without gilding, or any kind of ornament. The boxes are engaged by the season: and subscribers only, with their friends, admitted to them, paying a pesetta each. In the pit are the men, seated as in a great arm’d chair; the lower class stand behind these seats: above are the women; for the sexes are separated, and so strictly, that an officer was broke at Madrid, for intruding into the female places. The boxes, of course, hold family parties. The centre box, over the entrance of the pit, is appointed for the magistrates; covered in the front with red fluff, and ornamented with the royal arms. The motto is a curious one, “Silencio y no fumar.” Silence and no smoaking.” The Comedy, of course, was very dull to one who could not understand it. I was told that it contained some wit, and more obscenity; but the only comprehensible joke to me, was “Ah !” said in a loud voice by one man, and “Oh!” replied equally equally loud by another, to the great amusement of the audience. To this succeeded a Comic Opera; the characters were represented by the most ill-looking man and woman I ever saw. My Swedish friend’s island of hares and rabbits could not have a fitter king and queen. The man’s dress was a thread-bare brown coat lined with silk, that had once been white, and dirty corduroy waistcoat and breeches; his beard was black, and his neckcloth and shoes dirty: but his face! Jack-ketch might sell the reversion of his fee for him, and be in no danger of defrauding the purchaser. A soldier was the other character, in old black velveret breeches; with a pair of gaters reaching above the knee, that appeared to have been made out of some blacksmith’s old leathern apron. A farce followed, and the hemp-stretch man again made his appearance; having blacked one of his eyes to look blind. M. observed that he looked better with one eye than with two; and we agreed, that the loss of his head would be an addition to his beauty. The prompter stands in the middle of the stage, about half way above it; before a little tin screen, not unlike a man in a cheese-toaster. He read the whole play with the actors, in a tone of voice equally loud; and, when one of the performers added a little of his own wit, he was so provoked as to abuse him aloud, and shake the book at him. Another prompter made his appearance to the Opera, unshaved, and dirty beyond description: they both used as much action as the actors. The scene that falls between the acts would disgrace a puppet-show at an English fair; on one side is a hill, in size and shape like a sugar-loaf, with a temple on the summit, exactly like a watch-box; on the other Parnassus, with Pegasus striking the top in his flight, and so giving a source to the waters of Helicon: but, such is the proportion of the horse to the mountain, that you would imagine him to bet only taking a flying leap over a large ant-hill; and think he would destroy the whole oeconomy of the state, by kicking it to pieces. Between the hills lay a city; and in the air sits a duck-legged Minerva, surrounded by flabby Cupids. I could see the hair-dressing behind the scenes: a child was suffered to play on the stage, and amuse himself by sitting on the scene, and swinging backward and forward, so as to endanger setting it on fire. Five chandeliers were lighted by only twenty candles. To represent night, they turned up two rough planks, about eight inches broad, before the stage lamps and the musicians, whenever they retired, blew out their tallow candles. But the most singular thing, is their mode of drawing up the curtain. A man climbs up to the roof, catches hold of a rope, and then jumps down; the weight of his body raising the curtain, and that of the curtain breaking his fall. I did not see one actor with a clean pair of shoes. The women wore in their hair a tortoise-shell comb to part it; the back of which is concave, and so large as to resemble the front of a small bonnet. This would not have been inelegant, if their hair had been clean and without powder, or even appeared decent with it. I must now to supper. When a man must diet on what is disagreeable, it is some consolation to reflect that it is wholesome; and this is the case with the wine: but the bread here is half gravel, owing to the soft nature of their grind-stones. Instead of tea, a man ought to drink Adams’s solvent with his breakfast.

Comments: Robert Southey (1774-1843) was a British poet, historian and biographer, serving as Poet Laureate for the last thirty years of his life. He travelled to Portugal and Spain in 1795, staying with an uncle who was chaplain to the British community in Lisbon. Southey’s account of his stay was his first published prose work.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Source: William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself; comprising a complete journal of his negotiations to procure the aid of the French for the liberation of Ireland, with selections from his diary whilst agent to the Irish Catholics (London: H. Colburn, 1827), vol. 1, pp. 290-291

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Paris, 21 March 1796

Text: [21 March 1796] Went to see Othello; not translated, but only taken from the English. Poor Shakspeare! I felt for him. The French tragedy is a pitiful performance, filled with false sentiment; the Moor whines most abominably, and Iago is a person of a very pretty morality: the author apologizes for softening the villany of the latter character, as well as for saving the life of Desdemona and substituting a happy termination in place of the sublime and terrible conclusion of the English tragedy, by saying that the humanity of the French nation, and their morality, would be shocked by such exhibitions! “Marry come up, indeed! People’s ears are sometimes the nicest part about them.” I admire a nation that will guillotine sixty people a day for months, (men, women, and children,) and cannot bear the catastrophe of a dramatic exhibition! Yet certainly the author knows best, and I have had occasion repeatedly to observe, that the French are more struck with any little incident of tenderness on the stage, a thousand times, than the English, — which is strange. In short, the French are a humane people when they are not mad, and I like them with all their faults, and the guillotine at the head of them, better, a thousand times, than the English. And I like the Irish better than either; and as no one can doubt my impartiality, I expect my opinion will be received with proper respect and deference by all whom it may concern. I have nothing to add.

Comments: Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was an Irish republican who led the Irish rebellion of 1798. He went to Paris in February 1796 to persuade the revolutionary government to assist in an invasion of Ireland. The production of Othello that he saw was probably an 1792 adaptation by Jean-François Ducis, which radically altered the plot (hence Desdemona survives and Iago is pardoned by Othello). Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. The plays were nevertheless a significant step in the belated appreciation of Shakespeare in France.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust