1850s

Music Hall Morality

G. Durand, ‘Saturday night at the Victoria Theatre’, The Graphic, 26 October 1872

Source: James Greenwood, ‘Music Hall Morality’, London Society, vol. XIV, December 1868, pp. 486-491

Text: Twenty years ago amusement for the people was at low-water mark. Railways were less numerous and extensive, and railway directors had not yet thought of working the profitable field suggested by the little word ‘excursion.’ ‘Eight hours by the seaside,’ to be compassed comfortably within a holiday of a single summer’s day was a miracle scarcely even dreamt of by the most sanguine progressionist. Thousands and tens of thousands of London-born men and women lived and laboured through a long life-time, and never saw the sea at all. Sheerness, twenty years ago, was the working man’s seaside; and his knowledge of sea sand was confined to as much of it as was unpleasantly discovered lurking within the shells of the plate of winkles served up at his shilling tea at Gravesend. Even the green country ‘far removed from noise and smoke,’ was, if not a sealed book to him, at least a volume placed on so high a shelf that, after some experience, he was driven to the conclusion that the pains and penalties attending a climb for it were scarcely compensated by success and temporary possession of the prize. The only conveyance at his service—and that only on recognized holiday occasions—was the greengrocer’s van, newly painted and decorated for the event, and in which a mixed company of the sexes crowded, and were dragged along the hot and dusty road at the rate of five miles an hour, towards Hampton Court or Epping Forest, there to huddle on the grass, and partake of a collation that, but for its four hours’ grilling on the van roof under a blazing sun, would have been cold, with flask liquor or luke-warm beer out of a stone jar as liquid accompaniments. Twenty years ago a Crystal Palace had existence nowhere but within the cover of that book of wonders, the ‘Arabian Nights’ Entertainments,’ and the soil out of which the museum at South Kensington has sprung was devoted to the growth of cabbages.

In that dark age, however, it is questionable if the inconveniences enumerated were regarded as such. The people knew no better. The Jack of the past generation was a Jack-of-all-work, according to the strictest interpretation of that term. So seldom did he indulge in a holiday that he went at it as a teetotaller broke loose goes at hard drinking, and it unsettled him for a week afterwards. His play-time imposed on him more real hard labour than his accustomed jog-trot worktime, and he was an unhappy, despondent man until his excited nerves grew calm, and the tingling of his blood subsided. Such were the alarming effects on him that it seemed a happy dispensation that Whitsun and Easter came each but once a year.

As a man who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow, and who consequently was in a violent condition of perspiration during twelve hours in each twenty-four, it is scarcely likely that the question of evening amusement would much trouble the working man of that period. Jaded and weary, he was by necessity a hearth and homeloving man. He had neither the pluck nor the inclination to be anything else. The evening saw him plodding homeward, and all his desire was to remove his heavy boots from his tired feet, and engage with all speed in the demolition of his tea-supper, after which there was nothing for it but for him to drag his chair to the chimney-corner, and there sit and smoke or doze till bedtime. If he were inclined for an hour or so of away-from-home recreation, where could he find it? There were the theatres; but he so rarely went to such places that ‘going to the play’ was an event not to be treated in an off-hand manner, or to be decided on without due deliberation. Besides, it was a dear treat. Supposing that he went into the pit (he would take the ‘missus’ of course), there would go two shillings, and at least another one for a drop of something to take in and a mouthful of something to eat, and three shillings is a large sum. Being a Briton and a loyal man, and as such recognizing ‘the social glass and the cheerful song’ as chief among the supporting pillars of the Constitution, he would very willingly have contributed his share towards it; but where, as a sober and proper person, was his opportunity? Truly, he might drink long life and prosperity to the Queen, and confusion to her enemies, as he sat at home over the pint of beer fetched from the public-house; but amidst the distracting influences of domesticity how much of heartiness would there be in the patriotic sentiment? He might, as he sat with his feet on the home fender-bar, raise his voice harmonically in praise of his wife and ‘the troop of little children at his knee,’ or of ‘Tom Bowling,’ or ‘Old John Barleycorn;’ but he would grow weary in less than a week of such pastime, under repeated reminders that the baby was asleep, or that his fellow-lodgers were complaining. Even twenty years ago there were ‘concert rooms’ where ‘professional talent’ was engaged, and where sixpence was charged for admission; but, as a rule, these were dirty, low, disreputable dens, where liquor little better than poison was sold, and where the company consisted chiefly of the riff-raff of the town, both male and female. He had neither the means nor the inclination to resort to a place of this description. All, then, that was left to him was the tavern parlour ‘sing-song,’ or free-and-easy, usually celebrated on Mondays and Saturdays, these being the times when he was most likely to have a shilling in his pocket. But what amount of satisfaction was to be got out of it? Excepting for the inordinate quantity of malt or spirituous liquors the working man felt bound to imbibe for the good of the house, the ‘free-and-easy’ was as tame as tame could be. The same individual—the landlord—occupied the chair invariably; the same men sang the same songs (it would have been regarded as a most unwarrantable liberty if Jones had attempted to render a ditty known as Wilkins’s); the same jokes were exchanged; the same toasts and sentiments found utterance. It was not enjoyment at all that occupied the company, but a good-natured spirit of forbearance and toleration. Scarcely a man in the room came to hear singing, but to be heard singing. This was the weakness that drew the members of the ‘ free-and-easy’ together, and every man, out of tender consideration for his own affliction, was disposed to treat an exhibition of the prevalent malady on the part of a neighbour with kindly sympathy. But the morning’s reflection ensuing on such an evening’s amusement never failed to disclose the dismal fact that there was ‘nothing in it’—nothing, that is, but headache and remorse for money wasted.

Of late years, however, the state of the British handicraftsman has undergone an extraordinary change. He is not the same fellow he used to be. He has cast aside the ancient mantle of unquestioning drudgery that so long hung about his drooping shoulders. He has straightened his neck to look about him, a process which has elevated his view of matters generally at least three inches (and that is a good deal in the case of a man whose nose from boyhood has been kept at the grindstone, and whose vision has been always at a bare level with the top of that useful machine). It was no more than natural that’ work’ being the theme that had so long occupied his attention, he should, having satisfactorily settled that matter, turn to its direct antithesis, ‘play,’ and make a few inquiries as to what amendment were possible in that direction. It became evident to him that this portion of the social machine, no less than the other, was out of order. It appeared all right from a superficial view; but when you came closely to examine it there were loose screws in every direction, and many of the main wheels were so clogged with objectionable matter, that no decent man could safely approach it. This was serious. The reformed handicraftsman had leisure now, and considerably more money than in the old time. Offer him a fair evening’s amusement, and he would pay his shilling for it cheerfully But, mind you, it must be fit and proper amusement, and such as chimed harmoniously with his newly-developed convictions of his respectability and intellectual importance. But, looking to the right and to the left of him, he failed to discover what ho sought; and probably he would to this very day have been vainly inquiring which way he should turn, had it not been for certain enterprising and philanthropic persons, who, ascertaining his need, generously undertook the task of providing for it.

The arguments used by the disinterested gentlemen in question showed beyond a doubt that they thoroughly understood the matter. ‘What you want,’ said they to the working man, ‘is something very different from that which now exists. You like good music, you have an affectionate regard for the drama; but if at the present time you would taste of one or the other you are compelled to do so under restrictions that are irksome. The theatre is open to you, but you cannot do as you like in a theatre. You must conform to certain rules and regulations, and, in a manner of speaking, are made to “toe the mark.” If you want a glass of beer—and what is more natural than that you should?—you can’t get it. What you can get for your sixpence is half a pint and a gill of flat or sour stuff in a black bottle, and to obtain even this luxury you must creep noiselessly to the shabby little refreshment-room and drink it there and creep back again to your seat in the pit as though you had been guilty of something you should be ashamed of. You would like a pipe or a cigar; you are used to smoking of evenings, and deprivation from the harmless indulgence disagrees with you. No matter; you must not smoke within the walls of a theatre; if you attempted it the constable would seize you and never loose his hold on your collar till he had landed you on the outer pavement.

‘Now what you require, and what you shall have, is a happy blending of the theatre and the opera house and the highly-respectable tavern parlour, a place the atmosphere of which shall be so strictly moral that the finest-bred lady in the land may breathe it without danger, and at the same time a place where a gentleman accompanying a lady may take his sober and soothing glass of grog or tankard of ale and smoke his cigar as innocently and peacefully as though he sat by his own fireside at home. We will have music both vocal and instrumental, the grand singing of the great Italian masters, ballad-singing, touching and pathetic, and funny singing that shall promote harmless mirth while it not in the least offends the most prudish ear. We will have operas; we will have ballets. Should the public voice sanction it occasionally we will have chaste acrobatic performances and feats of tumbling and jugglery; but in this last-mentioned matter we are quite in the hands of our patrons. Enjoyment pure and simple is our motto and by it we will stand or fall.’

This, in substance, was the prospectus of the first music hall established in London, and the public expressed its approval. How the fair promises of the original promoters of the scheme were redeemed we will not discuss. Undertakings of such magnitude are sure to work uneasily at the first. It will be fairer to regard the tree of twenty years’ growth with its twenty noble branches flourishing in full foliage and melodious with the songs of the many songsters that harbour there. We cannot listen to them all at once, however sweet though the music be. Let us devote an hour to one of the said branches. Which one does not in the least matter, since no one set of songsters are confined to a branch. They fly about from one to another, and may sometimes be heard—especially the fanny ones—on as many as four different boughs in the course of a single evening. Simply because it is the nearest let us take the Oxbridge, one of the most famous music halls in London, and nightly crowded.

Either we are in luck or else the talent attached to the Oxbridge is something prodigious. Almost every vocal celebrity whose name has blazoned on the advertising hoardings during the season is here tonight—the Immense Vamp, the Prodigious Fodgers, the Stupendous Smuttyman, the Tremendous Titmouse, together with ‘Funny’ Freddys, and ‘Jolly’ Joeys, and ‘Side-splitting’ Sammys by the half-dozen. Some of these leviathans of song were authors of what they sang, as, for instance, the Prodigious Podgers, who had recently made such a great sensation with his ‘Lively Cats’-meat Man.’ As I entered the splendid portals of the Oxbridge the natty ‘turn-out’ of Podgers, consisting of three piebald ponies in silver harness and a phaeton that must have cost a hundred and fifty guineas at least, was there in waiting, ready to whirl the popular Podgers to the Axminster as soon as the Oxbridge could possibly spare him.

The Oxbridge, as usual, was crowded, the body of the hall, the sixpenny part, by working men and their wives, with a sprinkling of ‘jolly dogs’ and budding beardless puppies of the same breed, whose pride and delight it is to emulate their elders. As regards the audience this is the worst that may be said of the body of the hall. It was plain at a glance to perceive that the bulk of the people there were mostly people not accustomed to music halls, and only induced to pay them a visit on account of the highly-respectable character the music halls are in the habit of giving themselves in their placards and in the newspapers. In the stalls and the more expensive parts of the house, and before the extensive drinking bar, matters were very different. Here were congregated selections from almost every species of vice, both male and female, rampant in London. Here was the Brummagem ‘swell’ with his Houndsditch jewellery and his Whitechapel gentility, and the well-dressed blackguard with a pound to spend, and the poor, weak-minded wretch of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ school, and the professional prowler hovering about him with the full intent of plucking him if he finds the chance. As for the females of this delightful clique, it is sufficient to say that they plied their trade without the least attempt at concealment. And why should they not? who is to check them? Not the proprietor of the Oxbridge. It is a fact that he admits them without charge, seeing his interest therein. What else should take Champagne Charlie to the Oxbridge, and the host of ‘swells’ who order neat little suppers and recklessly fling down their sovereigns to pay for wine that in sufficient quantity would sicken a hog? Of what use is ‘the body of the hall’ to the proprietor? How far do paltry sixpences go towards paying Podgers his three guineas a night? What profit is there on the price charged Bill Stubbs for his pint of stout? Not but that the frequenters of the sixpenny part are very useful; indeed, to speak truth, the Oxbridge could not get on well without them. They keep up appearances, and present a substantial contradiction to the accusation that the music hall is nothing better than a haunt for drunkenness and debauchery.

‘But surely,’ the reader may exclaim, ‘unless the company for whom the music hall was originally designed found the worth of their money they would cease to patronise the place. They go for the purpose of hearing songs adapted to their taste and they are not disappointed.’ I am loth to say as much in the face of the Popular Podgers and the Immense Vamp, but I should be vastly surprised if the only element of respectability frequenting the Oxbridge was not only disappointed but shocked and disgusted, and that very often. I cannot explain why, after being shocked, they should make a second attempt, except that they are lured to ‘try again,’ and that folks of not over sensitive mind grow used to shocks. If these music hall songs were really written for the respectable portion of the auditory there would not be the least occasion why they should be composed almost entirely of indecency and drivel; but the fact is these are the persons whose tastes are not at all studied in preparing the evening bill of fare. The individuals the song-writer writes up to and the singer sings up to are the heedless, and abandoned, and disreputable ones who have money to squander. The proprietor knows his customers. Where would be the use of setting before a tipsy ‘swell’ (unless indeed he had arrived at the maudlin, in which condition he is profitable to no one) a wholesome, simple ballad? He would howl it down before the first verse was accomplished. He must have something to chime with the idiotic tone of his mind, no matter how low, how vulgar, or how defiant of propriety, and he can obtain it at the music hall. The Immense Vamp is his obedient servant, as is the Prodigious Podgers and the Tremendous Titmouse—even the ‘P— of W—’s Own Comique.’ Any one would think, and not unreasonably, when he sees year in and year out flaming announcements of the engagements here and there of these gentry, that there must be something in them; that, however peculiar their talent, it is such as recommends itself to something more than the passing admiration of those who witness it; but it is nothing of the kind. Take any half-dozen of the most popular of our ‘comic singers’ and set them singing four of their most favourite songs each, and I will warrant that twenty out of the full number will consist of the utterest trash it is possible to conceive. It would not so much matter if the trade were harmless—not unfrequently it is most pernicious. Take a batch of these precious productions, and you will find the one theme constantly harped on: it is all about a ‘young chap’ and a ‘young gal,’ or an ‘old chap’ and an ‘old gal’ and their exploits, more or less indecent. A prolific subject with these ‘great’ artists is the spooney courtship of a young man who is induced to accompany the object of his affections to her abode, and when there gets robbed and ill-used. As the Immense Vamp sings—

‘I was going to go when in come a feller
And he smashed my hat with his umbrella
And blacked my eye, and didn’t I bellow.’

But this peculiar line Vamp makes his own, and it is not to be wondered at that he shines therein before all others. Popular Podgers has a vein of his own, and how profitable the working of it is let the piebald ponies and the silver-mounted phaeton attest. He goes in for vocal exemplifications of low life—the lowest of all. His rendering of a Whitechapel ruffian, half costermonger half thief, filled the Oxbridge nightly for more than a month. You may see Podgers arrayed in the ruffian’s rags portrayed on a music-sheet in the windows of the music-shops, and underneath is inscribed the chorus of this wonderful song:—

‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke with my one, two, three,
Whitechapel is the village I was born in,
To ketch me on the hop, or on my tibby drop,
You must get up very early in the morning.’

But inasmuch as the effusions of Podgers are as a rule unintelligible except to the possessors of a slang dictionary, he is less obnoxious than others of his brethren. What these productions are need be no more than hinted to ears polite. The mischief is that the ten thousand ears unpolite are opened for the reception of the poison night after night in twenty music halls in and about London, and no one says nay.

The male singer of the music hall, however, whether he takes the shape of the impudent clown who pretends to comicality, or of the spoony sentimentalist who tenderly gushes forth such modern enchanting melodies as ‘Maggie May’ or ‘Meet me in the Lane,’ is not the most pernicious ingredient that composes in its entirety the music hall hero. Time was, when with a liberal steeping of Vamps, and Podgers, and Smuttymans, the decoction proved strong enough, but, like indulgence in other poisons, what is a sufficient dose this year is useless as water next. It was found necessary to strengthen the mixture—to make it hotter of that kind of spice most grateful to the palate of the vulgar snob with a pound to spend. To effect this, there was nothing for it but to introduce the comic female element, or, as she more modestly styles herself, the’ serio-comic.’ The ‘serio,’ however, is not obtrusive. You seek for it in vain in the brazen pretty face, in the dress that is exactly as much too high as it is too low, in the singer’s gestures, looks, and bold advances. Decent men who, misled by placards and newspaper advertisements, take their wives and daughters to the Oxbridge or the Axminster, may, as they listen, tingle in shame at the blunder they have committed; but the dashing, piquant, saucy delineator of ‘What Jolly Gals are we’ has the ears and the yelling admiration of the brainless snobs and puppies before alluded to, and the mad noises they make, demanding a repetition of the detestable ditty, quite drown the feeble hisses of remonstrance the decent portion of the auditory may venture to utter. Some time since, during the theatre and music hall controversy, a worthy London magistrate announced from his judicial bench that on the evening previous he had visited one of the most popular of the halls, and found everything creditable, and discreet, and decorous: a pretty penny it must afterwards have cost somebody for champagne, to pacify the patron snobs and puppies for depriving them of their evening’s amusement.

But—and it is alarming to remark it—even the indecent, impudent ‘serio-comic’ female, who, going the full length of the tether allowed her, might have been supposed equal to all demands, is palling on the palate of the Oxbridge habitué. He must have something even more exhilarating; and, ever ready to oblige, the music hall proprietor rigs up a trapeze, and bribes some brazen, shameless woman to attire in man’s clothes, and go through the ordinary performances of a male acrobat. Rivalling the new idea, a South London music hall proprietor is advertising the ‘Sensational Can-can, exactly as in France.’ What is the next novelty in preparation?

Comments: James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a British novelist and campaigning journalist, known for his investigations into the lives of London’s poor, sometimes using disguise. There was no ‘Oxbridge’ (or ‘Axminster’) music hall – the hall described here may have been inspired by the Oxford Music Hall in London’s Oxford Street, but at the time of this article the Oxford was not in operation, having burned down in March 1868 and not re-opening until August 1869. The artists named are likewise semi-fictions. The Immense Vamp would appear to be Alfred Vance, the Great Vance, ‘lion comique‘ star of the Oxford in the 1860s, whose signature song was ‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke’, though it is attributed here to ‘Popular Podgers’. Vance’s great rival of the period was George Leybourne, whose signature tune was ‘Champagne Charlie’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning

Matthew Brady, ‘Edwin Forrest as Rolla’ (c.1861), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Edwin Forrest Home for Retired Actors, http://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.88.99

Source: Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall (eds.), The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning: Volume 1, 1850-1864 (Springfield, Ill.: The Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1925), p. 216

Production: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Pizarro, Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, 15 December 1855

Text: Reached Philadelphia before night & stopped at Girard House. At night went to Walnut Street Theatre to hear Forrest, who was doing Rolla in the play of Pizzarro and did it shockingly – Miserable actor. Mrs Drew, in Elvira, played well, and was the only one who did. Miss Weston in Cora did passably – The rest were all exceedingly common place – Did not stay for the after piece.

Comments: Orville Hickman Browning (1806-1881) was an American lawyer and Whig Republican senator. His diaries contain several references to theatregoing. Edwin Forrest was one of the great tragedians of the nineteenth-century American stage. Louisa Lane Drew (often billed as Mrs John Drew) was an ancestor of the great Barrymore acting family. The film actress Drew Barrymore is her great-great-granddaughter. Both appeared in Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s tragedy on the conquest of Peru, Pizarro, at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the part of Rolla being one of Forrest’s most celebrated roles.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Three Years in Europe

Source: W[illiam] Wells Brown, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (London/Edinburgh: Charles Gilpin/Oliver and Boyd, 1852)

Text: As we were returning to our lodgings, we saw in Exeter Street, Strand, one of those exhibitions that can be seen in almost any of the streets in the suburbs of the Metropolis, but which is something of a novelty to those from the other side of the Atlantic. This was an exhibition of “Punch and Judy.” Everything was in full operation when we reached the spot. A puppet appeared eight or ten inches from the waist upwards, with an enormous face, huge nose, mouth widely grinning, projecting chin, cheeks covered with grog blossoms, a large protuberance on his back, another on his chest; yet with these deformities he appeared uncommonly happy. This was Mr. Punch. He held in his right hand a tremendous bludgeon, with which he amused himself by rapping on the head every one who came within his reach. This exhibition seems very absurd, yet not less than one hundred were present—children, boys, old men, and even gentlemen and ladies, were standing by, and occasionally greeting the performer with the smile of approbation. Mr. Punch, however, was not to have it all his own way, for another and better sort of Punch-like exhibition appeared a few yards off, that took away Mr. Punch’s audience, to the great dissatisfaction of that gentleman. This was an exhibition called the Fantoccini, and far superior to any of the street performances which I have yet seen. The curtain rose and displayed a beautiful theatre in miniature, and most gorgeously painted. The organ which accompanied it struck up a hornpipe, and a sailor, dressed in his blue jacket, made his appearance and commenced keeping time with the utmost correctness. This figure was not so long as Mr. Punch, but much better looking. At the close of the hornpipe the little sailor made a bow, and tripped off, apparently conscious of having deserved the undivided applause of the bystanders. The curtain dropped; but in two or three minutes it was again up, and a rope was discovered, extended on two cross pieces, for dancing upon. The tune was changed to an air, in which the time was marked, a graceful figure appeared, jumped upon the rope with its balance pole, and displayed all the manoeuvres of an expert performer on the tight rope. Many who would turn away in disgust from Mr. Punch, will stand for hours and look at the performances of the Fantoccini. If people, like the Vicar of Wakefield, will sometimes “allow themselves to be happy,” they can hardly fail to have a hearty laugh at the drolleries of the Fantoccini. There may be degrees of absurdity in the manner of wasting our time, but there is an evident affectation in decrying these humble and innocent exhibitions, by those who will sit till two or three in the morning to witness a pantomime at a theatre-royal.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. Fantoccini are marionettes, puppets controlled by wires or string, associated with Italy.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

Down Whitechapel Way

Source: George Augustus Sala, ‘Down Whitechapel Way’, Household Words, 1 November 1851, pp. 129, 131

Text: … We will, if you please, cross over, leaving the curbstone market (which only exists on one side), and, allured by the notes of an execrably played fiddle, enter one of those dazzling halls of delight, called a “penny gaff.”

The “gaff” throws out no plausible puffs, no mendacious placards, respecting the entertainment to be found therein. The public take the genuineness of the “gaff” for granted, and enter by dozens. The “gaff” has been a shop—a simple shop—with a back parlour to it, and has been converted into a hall of delight, by the very simple process of knocking out the shop front, and knocking down the partition between the shop and parlour. The gas-fittings yet remain, and even the original counters, which are converted into “reserved seats,” on which, for the outlay of twopence, as many costers, thieves, Jew-boys, and young ladies, as can fight for a place, are sitting, standing, or lounging. For the common herd—the οἱ πολλοί—the conditio vivendi is simply the payment of one penny, for which they get standing rooms in what are somewhat vaguely termed the “stalls,”—plainly speaking, the body of the shop. The proscenium is marked by two gas “battens” or pipes, perforated with holes for burners, traversing the room horizontally, above and below. There are some monstrous engravings, in vile frames, suspended from the walls, some vilely coloured plaster casts, and a stuffed monstrosity or two in glass cases. The place is abominably dirty, and the odour of the company generally, and of the shag tobacco they are smoking, is powerful.

A capital house though, to-night: a bumper, indeed. Such a bumper, in fact, that they have been obliged to place benches on the stage (two planks on tressels), on which some of the candidates for the reserved seats are accommodated. As I enter, a gentleman in a fustian suit deliberately walks across the stage and lights his pipe at the footlights; while a neighbour of mine, of the Jewish persuasion, who smells fearfully of fried fish, dexterously throws a cotton handkerchief, containing some savoury condiment from the stalls to the reserved seats, where it is caught by a lady whom he addresses by the title of “Bermondsey Bet.” Bet is, perhaps, a stranger in these parts, and my Hebrew friend wishes to show her that Whitechapel can assert its character for hospitality.

Silence for the manager, if you please!—who comes forward with an elaborate bow, and a white hat in his hand, to address the audience. A slight disturbance has occurred, it appears, in the course of the evening; the Impresario complains bitterly of the “mackinnations” of certain parties “next door,” who seek to injure him by creating an uproar, after he has gone to the expense of engaging “four good actors” for the express amusement of the British public. The “next door” parties are, it would seem, the proprietors of an adjacent public-house, who have sought to seduce away the supporters of the “gaff,” by vaunting the superior qualities of their cream gin, a cuckoo clock, and the “largest cheroots in the world for a penny.”

Order is restored, and the performances commence. “Mr. and Mrs. Stitcher,” a buffo duet of exquisite comicality, is announced. Mr. Stitcher is a tailor, attired in the recognised costume of a tailor on the stage, though, I must confess, I never saw it off. He has nankeen pantaloons, a red nightcap—a redder nose, and a cravat with enormous bows. Mrs. Stitcher is “made up” to represent a slatternly shrew, and she looks it all over. They sing a verse apiece; they sing a verse together; they quarrel, fight, and make it up again. The audience are delighted. Mr. S. reproaches Mrs. S. with the possession of a private gin-bottle; Mrs. S. inveighs against the hideous turpitude of Mr. S. for pawning three pillow-cases to purchase beer. The audience are in ecstacies. A sturdy coalheaver in the “stalls” slaps his thigh with delight. It is so real. Ugh! terribly real; let us come away, even though murmurs run through the stalls that “The Baker’s Shop” is to be sung. I see, as we edge away to the door, a young lady in a cotton velvet spencer, bare arms, and a short white calico skirt, advance to the footlights. I suppose she is the Fornarina, who is to enchant the dilettanti with the flowery song in question …

… Another “gaff” on the right-hand side of the road—but on a grander scale. The Effingham Saloon, with real boxes, a real pit, and a real gallery; dreadfully dirty, and with a dirtier audience. No comic singing, but the drama —the real, legitimate drama. There is a bold bandit, in buff-boots, calling on “yon blew Ev’n to bring-a down-a rewing on ther taraytor’s ed.” There is nothing new in him, nor in the young lady in pink calico, with her back hair down, expressive of affliction. Nor in the Pavilion Theatre over the way, where “Rugantino the Terrible” is the stock piece, and where there are more buff-boots, rusty broad-swords, calico-skirts, and back hairs …

Comments: George Augustus Henry Sala (1828-1895) was a British journalist, among the most celebrated of his day, though at the time of his article on life in London’s East End, from which the above extract is taken, he had just started out in the profession, writing for Charles Dickens‘s journal Household Words. ‘Penny gaff’ was term describing the cheap Victorian theatre which flourished in London’s East End between 1830 and 1900. These were generally located in vacant shops or warehouses, and could house anything from a few dozen to an audience of 400 or more. Their programmes were a mixture of melodrama, cut-down Shakespeare, variety acts, dances and songs. The Effingham saloon, established in 1834, was adapted into a theatre in 1858, the New Garrick. It was followed on the same site by the Yiddish theatre venue New East London Theatre (burned down 1879), which was in turn followed by the renowned boxing venue Wonderland (burned down 1917). In 1921 it became the Rivoli Cinema.

Links: Copy at Dickens Journals Online

Queen Victoria’s Journals

Source: Alexandrina Victoria, journal entry for 22 June 1852

Production: Johann von Goethe, Faust, St James’s Theatre, London, 22 June 1852

Text: We dined early & went to the St. James’s Theatre, to see Goethe’s great & wonderful Tragedy of “Faust”, It was in 6 acts & though necessarily much curtailed, it lasted till 12. Having never read it before, I can hardly be a fit judge of it, but I mean to study it well now. For Philosophy, depth of feeling & beauty of reasoning, it has no equal, but I could not understand the 1rst part or follow it well. Then the story of poor Gretchen, the true story of all such poor girls, who are seduced, & whose pure innocent natures, are led step by step into sin, till they lose their reason & destroy both themselves & their child, — is most painful & the constant appearance of threat dreadful Mephistopheles, equally painful & oppressive. Still it is a magnificent work, & I have no doubt that by studying the Piece I shall get to appreciate it more. It was admirably acted. Devrient acted the part of Faust & recited the long monologue in the 1rst act beautifully; Herr Kühn, that of Mephistopheles, acting the part admirably, with a complete personification of the Devil, in both looks & gestures. He was quite horrid to look at; Fraülin Schäfer, as Gretchen, looking so pretty & acting the part so simply, naturally & innocently. At the end, when she said “I must die, I am still so young”, quite went to one’s heart, as also when Mephistopheles speaks to her & she answers so simply “I am a poor young creature”. She was charmingly dressed. Frau Flindt took the part of Martha. The end is too terrible when Gretchen is in prison & speaks of having poisoned her mother & killed her child. —

Comments: Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), later just Victoria, was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to her death, and additionally titled Empress of India from 1876. She kept up a journal from 1832 until almost the end of her life. The journal records many visits to the theatre, particularly in her younger days. Goethe‘s play Faust (part one) was one of a number of productions put on in a three-week season at the St James’s Theatre by a German company, led by Emil Devrient, who played Faust, with C. Kühn playing Mephistopheles. All the productions, which included Hamlet, were performed in German. Victoria was accompanied by her German husband, Prince Albert, who afterwards commissioned artist Edward Corbould to produce a painting of a scene from the play for the queen. It is held in the Royal collection.

Links: Queen Victoria’s Journals
Edward Henry Corbould, ‘Scene from Goethe’s Faust: the appearance of the Spirit of the Earth’ (1852), The Royal Collection

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York

Source: Catherine Elizabeth Havens, Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York (New York: Henry Collins Brown, 1920), p. 108

Text: A while ago my brother took some of us to Christy’s Minstrels. They are white men, blacked up to look just like negroes. As the last man went off the stage, he stumbled and fell flat, and then he said, “Sambo, why am I like one of Walter Scott’s pomes? Give it up? Because I’m de lay ob de last minstrel!” And everybody laughed, and one of them said, “Pompy, my wife had an awful cold, and de doctor told her to put a plaster on her chest; but she didn’t have no chest, so she put it on her band-box and it drew her bonnet all out of shape.” And then we all clapped and laughed. They are awfully funny. They act on Broadway, down near Grand Street.

Comments: Catherine Elizabeth Havens (1839-?) spent her childhood in New York and began writing a diary when she was ten. This passage comes from a long diary entry for 6 August 1850 (her eleventh birthday). Her family lived in Brooklyn, on Ninth Street. Christy’s Minstrels were a troupe of blackface performers (i.e. white performers blacked up), formed in 1843 by Edwin Pearce Christy. At this time the troupe regularly performed at the Mechanics’ Hall at 472 Broadway, New York.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 56-59

Production: Charles Reade/Tom Taylor, Masks and Faces, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 27 November 1852

Text: November 27. – The new play at the HAYMARKET wants the scope and proportions of a regular English comedy, being in outline and structure of a French cast; but in character it is English, in sentiment thoroughly so, and its language and expression, whether of seriousness or humour, have the tone at once easy and earnest which truth gives to scholarship and wit.

The acting, too, is unusually good. There is a poor poet who doubles the scanty callings of painter and player, and whom Goldsmith could not have better described, or Leslie painted, than Mr. Webster acts him. The delicacy and strength of this performance took us by surprise. The humour and pathos closely neighbouring each other, smiles playing about the tears, and the mirth always trembling into sadness, belonged to most real art. And it was full of minute touches which showed the discrimination of the actor. For instance – that absurd air of helplessness, which the habit of incessant failure gives to a man. The poor starving author cannot hold even a couple of his own rejected tragedies in his hands without dropping one of them, nor pick up the straggler till its companion has tumbled after it.

The title of the comedy is ‘Masks and Faces, or Before and Behind the Curtain.’ Its heroine is Garrick’s favourite, Peg Woffington; whose attractive sprightliness, spirited independence, good understanding, and thoroughly good nature, distinguished her so favourably among the dames of the English theatre in the old days of the Sir Harry Wildairs and Lady Betty Modishes, and while yet the Iphigenias wore cherry-coloured silk over their large hoop petticoats. The drift of the little comedy is to show the good heart of the actress shining out through the disadvantage of her position and her calling, and rebuking the better fortune of those who have to struggle with no such temptations. There appears to be just now a great run upon such subjects with our French neighbours. Shut out by the censorship from most topics that trench upon the real world, French playwrights have betaken themselves in despair to the world of unreality, and now find their most popular subjects behind the scenes. They have just invented a model English actor at the Français, who by all sorts of nobility and propriety of conduct breaks down the most inveterate prejudices of caste; and at the Variétés they have reproduced a scamp of an actor of the infamous days of the Regency, who turns out to be after all the most interesting and fine-hearted rogue conceivable. In short, the Parisian spirit of the day, in these matters, is pretty much expressed in what one of our own wits used to be fond of contrasting in the fortunes of the two Duchesses of Bolton. The poor high-born lady, educated in solitude with choice of all good books, with a saintlike governess, and fairly crammed with virtue – what did it all come to? her husband despised her and the public laughed at her. Whereas the frank and fearless Polly, bred in an alehouse and produced on the stage, obtained not only wealth and title, but found the way to be esteemed, so that her husband respected and loved her, as the public had done before him.

The authors of ‘Masks and Faces’ (for there are two, Mr. Tom Taylor and Mr. Charles Reade) do not quite fall into this vein, however. They rather follow the example of the enthusiastic bishop, who, on hearing an actress of doubtful reputation sing divinely at an Oratorio, suddenly and loudly cried out, “Woman, thy sins be forgiven thee!” They do not suppress the sins of Mrs. Woffington, in the act of exhibiting what virtues as well as sorrows neighboured them; and, while they represent her with a touching sense of her own degradation, they have yet the courage to show her accepted for her virtues by the innocent and pure, and not disqualified by her vices to put conventional morality to shame. In a word, it is a very manly and right-minded little comedy; with matter of just reflection in it, as well as much mirth and amusement.

That is a charming scene where Peg visits the poor poet in his garret, while his ailing wife and starving children are sadly interrupting the flow of its comic muse. Nothing here was lost in Mr. Webster’s hands — the angry fretfulness followed by instant remorse, the efforts of self-restraint which are but efforts in vain, the energy that fitfully breaks out and then pitifully breaks down, and the final loss of hope, even of faith in a better providence which is to set right all that misery and wrong – the picture was complete, and set forth with its immemorial Grub-street appendages of no shirt and ragged but ample ruffles. An excellent touch, too, it was in this scene, when the poor, patient, sickly wife, nicely looked and played by Mrs. Leigh Murray, after rebuking her husband for his little outbreak of distrust in Providence, cannot help showing her own little jealousies and fellow-actress’s distrust of Mrs. Woffington. But Peg plays the part of Providence in the miserable garret, and in doing it Mrs. Stirling threw off all her too conscious airs and was really hearty and delightful. She gave the pathetic passages with genuine feeling, the mirthful with cordial enjoyment; and several heightening touches in both marked the personal sympathy and emotion with which the character appeared to have affected her.

The critics introduced are poor enough, and this part of the piece is here and there too long. Mr. Bland, moreover, who played Quin, exaggerated a mistake for which the writers had given him too much excuse, and made a mere loud, coarse, vulgar epicure of him. Quin was a gentleman and a man of wit. We remember him always as the patron as well as friend of the poet Thomson, and as the author of some of the very best things on record. Generally, however, the acting was very good. There was a little sketch of old Colley Cibber, by Mr. Lambert, particularly worth mention as observant and faithful.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. Tom Taylor and Charles Reade‘s 1852 Masks and Faces, which tells of the Irish actress Peg Woffington (1720-1760), was a great popular success and led Reade to produce his novel Peg Woffington the following year. Those appearing in the Haymarket Theatre production included Benjamin Nottingham Webster (as Triplet), Elizabeth Leigh Murray (Mrs Triplet), Mary Anne ‘Fanny’ Stirling (Peg), James Bland (Quin) and Mr Lambert (Cibber).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Visit to Charles Dickens

Source: Hans Christian Andersen, ‘A Visit to Charles Dickens’, Temple Bar, vol. 31, 1871, pp. 38-40

Production: William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857

Text: Respecting the mise en scène — and I must say even to exaggeration — one may obtain an idea in London by the grand and fantastic splendour with which Shakespeare’s plays were placed on the stage by Charles Kean. Kean, the son of the celebrated actor, but not comparable to his father in genius, had the genuine merit to have applied real talent and profound historical studies in order to produce the plays of Shakespeare in such a style as was never before witnessed, and would never have been conceived by the poet himself. He also adhered to the original with a pious fidelity heretofore unknown. In former times, managers had no scruples about omitting the Fool in ‘King Lear,’ one of the most important figures in the chief tragic group. Dickens told me that Macready had been the first to restore this essential character. At the time of my visit people were thronging to see the first representation of the ‘Tempest,’ which had been placed on the stage after innumerable rehearsals, and at an immense outlay. The theatre was crowded. The theatre is not large, and it is quite wonderful what human will and genius have been enabled to accomplish. Painter and machinist had perfectly caught the spirit of the piece: the mise en scène seemed inspired by the fancy of Shakespeare himself. During the overture, the music of which expresses the storm with an accompaniment of roaring thunder, shrieks and cries were heard from within. The whole prelude was thus given before the raising of the curtain. When this took place heavy billows came rolling against the footlights. The whole stage was a tumultuous sea: a large vessel was tossed to and fro — it occupied the larger part of the scene; sailors and passengers ran confusedly about; cries of agony and anguish resounded; the masts fell, and soon the vessel itself disappeared in the foaming brine. Dickens told me, that the ship was made of inflated air-tight canvas, the air being let out of which the entire huge body collapses at once, and is hidden by the waves, which were half the height of the scene.

The first appearance of Ariel was poetically beautiful to a high degree: as Prospero summoned him a shooting star fell from heaven; it touched the grass, it shone in blue and green flames, and rose suddenly before us as Ariel’s beautiful and angel-like form; he stood there in white garments, with wings from his shoulders down to the ground; it was as if he and the starry meteor had floated through heaven at the same moment. Every appearance of Ariel was different, and all were beautiful: now he appeared clinging by his hand to the tendrils of a vine, now floating across the scene by some mechanism not easy to be discovered. No cord or rod was visible, yet something of this nature upbore him in his attitude of flight. In one act we saw a bleak winter landscape, changing gradually at the outbreak of sunbeams to an aspect of the utmost luxuriance; the trees became arrayed in leaves, flowers, and fruit; the springs gushed abundantly, and water-nymphs, light as a swan’s feathers upon the billows, danced down the foaming waterfalls. In another scene Olympus shone forth with all its classic beauty; the aerial background was filled with hovering genii. Juno came borne along in her chariot by peacocks, whose trains glistened with radiance. The signs of the zodiac moved in procession: the entire scene was a perfect kaleidoscope phantasmagoria. The splendour of a single act would have drawn crowded houses to witness even the poorest play, and it was lavished upon five acts of Shakespeare — it was too much! Yes! we even sailed with the Ares in the gliding boat, and saw heir thoughts embodied. The whole background moved by — landscape succeeded landscape — a complete moving panorama.

The final scene was undeniably the most effective. It represented an open sea, rippled by the wind. Prospero, who is quitting his island, stood in the stern of the vessel, which moved from the background towards the foot-lights. The sails swelled, and when the parting epilogue had been spoken the ship glided slowly behind the side-scenes, and Ariel appeared, floating over the surface of the water and wafting his parting farewell. All the light fell upon him, insomuch that he, isolated by the electric ray, shed a meteoric splendour over the scene; a beautiful rainbow beamed away from him over the watery mirror. The moon that had shone brightly faded in the sunny radiance, and the rainbow glory beaming from him in the moment of departure. The enchanted public forgave the long intervals between the acts, and the interminable duration of the piece; which lasted on the first representation from 7 to 12.30. Everything had been done that scenery and mise en scene could effect; and yet, after seeing all we felt overwhelmed, weary, and empty. Shakespeare himself was sacrificed to the lust of the eye. Bold poetry became petrified into prosaic illustration. The living word evaporated, and the nectarean food was forgotten in the golden dish in which it was served up.

None of the actors appeared to me remarkable as dramatic artists, except the representation of Caliban. Ariel, which was performed by a lady, was a lovely figure; in naming these I have mentioned the only two of any importance. Kean declaimed in the style of a preacher, and his organ was not fine. I should more enjoy a representation of Shakespeare’s in a wooden theatre than here, where the play was lost in the properties.

Comments: Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author, best known for his fairy tales. He visited Charles Dickens at the latter’s home in Gad’s Hill, Kent over June-July 1857, greatly outstaying his welcome, to the annoyance of Dickens’s family. He visited London with Dickens on a number of occasions, though it is not absolutely certain that Dickens himself was present at this production of The Tempest at the Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857. Charles Kean was the son of the actor Edmund Kean, but inherited few of his father’s gifts as an actor. He was actor-manager at the Princess’s Theatre in London 1851-1859. Kean stressed painstaking, supposed historical accuracy in sets and costumes for his Shakespeare productions, combined with elaborate scenic effects (requiring over 140 stagehands). With scene changes between the acts, the entire production of The Tempest lasted for nearly five hours, despite substantial cuts to the text. Kean played Prospero, Kate Terry was Ariel, and John Ryder played Caliban.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 92-99

Production: William Shakespeare (and George Wilkins?), Pericles, Sadler’s Wells, London, 21 October 1854

Text: October 21. [1854] — ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre,’ that Eastern romance upon which Shakespeare first tried his power as a dramatist, and which he may have re-adapted to the stage even while yet a youth at Stratford, has been produced at SADLER’S WELLS by Mr. Phelps, with the care due to a work especially of interest to all students of Shakespeare, and with the splendour proper to an Eastern spectacle.

The story was an old one; there is a version of it even in Anglo-Saxon. Gower had made it the longest story in his ‘Confessio Amantis,’ and the one told with the greatest care; and the dramatist in using it made use of Gower. The story was a popular one of an Eastern prince whose life is spent upon a sea of trouble. Everywhere he is pursued by misfortune. He seeks a beautiful wife at the risk of death, through the good old Eastern plan of earning her by answering a riddle. She proves a miracle of lust. He flies from her, and is pursued by the strong wrath of her father. To avoid this he is forced to become an exile from his house and people. He sails to Tharsus, where he brings liberal relief to a great famine, and is hailed as a saviour; but to Tharsus he is pursued by warnings of the coming wrath of his great enemy. Again he becomes a fugitive across the sea. The sea is pitiless and tosses him from coast to coast until it throws him ashore, the only man saved from the wreck of his vessel near Pentapolis. But in Pentapolis reigns a good king, whose daughter — still in the true fashion of a story book — is to be courted by a tourney between rival princes. Pericles would take part in such ambition, and the sea casts him up a suit of armour. He strives, and is victor. He excels all in the tourney, in the song, and in the dance; the king is generous and the daughter kind. But the shadow of his evil fate is still over Pericles. He distrusts a thing” so strange as happy fortune, and thinks of it only “’tis the king’s subtlety to have my life.” Fortune is, however, for once really on his side. He marries the Princess Thaisa, and, being afterwards informed that his great enemy is dead and that his own subjects rebel against his continued absence, he sets sail with her from Tyre.

The good gifts seem, however, only to have been granted by Fortune that she might increase his wretchedness tenfold by taking them away. The sea again “washes heaven and hell” when his ship is fairly launched upon it, and in a storm so terrible that

“the seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard,

the nurse brings on deck to Pericles a new-born infant, with the tidings that its mother Thaisa is dead. The sailors, believing that a corpse on board maintains the storm about the ship, demand that the dead queen be thrown into the sea. Most wretched queen! mourns the more wretched prince,

“A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire: the unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow’d to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin’d, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.”

Being at this time near Tharsus, however, and remembering that Tharsus owes to him a debt of gratitude, Pericles makes for Tharsus, in order that he may place his infant with the least possible delay upon sure ground and under tender nursing.

The daughter there grows up under her father’s evil star. “This world to me,” she says, “is like a lasting storm, whirring me from my friends.” The Queen of Tharsus becomes jealous and resolves to murder her. It is by the sea-shore that the deed is to be done. When Pericles comes for his child her tomb is shown to him, and under this last woe his mind breaks down. He puts to sea again with his wrecked spirit, and, though the sea again afflicts him with its storms, he rides them out.

I have not told the familiar story thus far for the sake of telling it, but for the sake of showing in the most convenient way what is really the true spirit of the play. At this point of the tale the fortune of Pericles suddenly changes. A storm of unexpected happiness breaks with immense force upon him. The sea and the tomb seem to give up their dead, and from the lowest depths of prostration the spirit of the Prince is exalted to the topmost height, in scenes which form most worthily the climax of the drama. “0 Helicanus,” he then cries,

“O Helicanus, strike me, honoured sir;
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys, rushing upon me,
O’erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness.”

In telling such a story as this Shakespeare felt, and, young as he may have been, his judgment decided rightly, that it should be shown distinctly as a tale such as

“Hath been sung at festivals,
On Ember eves and holy ales;”

and he therefore brought forward Gower himself very much in the character of an Eastern storyteller to begin the narrative and to carry it on to the end, subject to the large interruption of five acts of dramatic illustration. A tale was being told; every person was to feel that, although much of it would be told to the eye. But in the revival of the play Mr. Phelps was left to choose between two difficulties. The omission of Gower would be a loss to the play, in an artistic sense, yet the introduction of Gower before every act would very probably endanger its effect in a theatrical sense, unless the part were spoken by an actor of unusual power. The former plan was taken; and in adding to certain scenes in the drama passages of his own writing, strictly confined to the explanation of those parts of the story which Shakespeare represents Gower as narrating between the acts, Mr. Phelps may have used his best judgment as a manager. Certainly, unless he could have been himself the Gower as well as the Pericles of the piece, the frequent introduction of a story-telling gentleman in a long coat and long curls would have been an extremely hazardous experiment, even before such an earnest audience as that at Sadler’s Wells.

The change did inevitably, to a certain extent, disturb the poetical effect of the story; but assuming its necessity, it was effected modestly and well. The other changes also were in no case superfluous, and were made with considerable judgment. The two scenes at Mitylene, which present Marina pure as an ermine which no filth can touch, were compressed into one; and although the plot of the drama was not compromised by a false delicacy, there remained not a syllable at which true delicacy could have conceived offence. The calling of Blount and his Mistress was covered in the pure language of Marina with so hearty a contempt, that the scene was really one in which the purest minds might be those which would take the most especial pleasure.

The conception of the character of Pericles by Mr. Phelps seemed to accord exactly with the view just taken of the play. He was the Prince pursued by evil fate. A melancholy that could not be shaken off oppressed him even in the midst of the gay court of King Simonides, and the hand of Thaisa was received with only the rapture of a love that dared not feel assured of its good fortune. Mr. Phelps represented the Prince sinking gradually under the successive blows of fate, with an unostentatious truthfulness; but in that one scene which calls forth all the strength of the artist, the recognition of Marina and the sudden lifting of the Prince’s bruised and fallen spirit to an ecstacy of joy, there was an opportunity for one of the most effective displays of the power of an actor that the stage, as it now is, affords. With immense energy, yet with a true feeling for the pathos of the situation that had the most genuine effect, Mr. Phelps achieved in this passage a triumph marked by plaudit after plaudit. They do not applaud rant at Sadler’s Wells. The scene was presented truly by the actor and felt fully by his audience.

The youthful voice and person, and the quiet acting of Miss Edith Heraud, who made her début as Marina, greatly helped to set forth the beauty of that scene. The other parts had also been judiciously allotted, so that each actor did what he or she was best able to do, and did it up to the full measure of the ability of each. Miss Cooper gave much effect to the scene of the recovery of Thaisa, which was not less well felt by those who provided the appointments of the stage, and who marked that portion of the drama by many delicacies of detail.

Of the scenery indeed it is to be said that so much splendour of decoration is rarely governed by so pure a taste. The play, of which the text is instability of fortune, has its characteristic place of action on the sea. Pericles is perpetually shown (literally as well as metaphorically) tempest-tost, or in the immediate vicinity of the treacherous waters; and this idea is most happily enforced at Sadler’s Wells by scene-painter and machinist. They reproduce the rolling of the billows and the whistling of the winds when Pericles lies senseless, a wrecked man on a shore. When he is shown on board ship in the storm during the birth of Marina, the ship tosses vigorously. When he sails at last to the temple of Diana of the Ephesians, rowers take their places on their banks, the vessel seems to glide along the coast, an admirably-painted panorama slides before the eye, and the whole theatre seems to be in the course of actual transportation to the temple at Ephesus, which is the crowning scenic glory of the play. The dresses, too, are brilliant. As beseems an Eastern story, the events all pass among princes. Now the spectator has a scene presented to him occupied by characters who appear to have stepped out of a Greek vase; and presently he looks into an Assyrian palace and sees figures that have come to life and colour from the stones of Nineveh. There are noble banquets and glittering processions, and in the banquet-hall of King Simonides there is a dance which is a marvel of glitter, combinations of colour, and quaint picturesque effect. There are splendid trains of courtiers, there are shining rows of vestal virgins, and there is Diana herself in the sky.

We are told that the play of ‘Pericles’ enjoyed, for its own sake, when it first appeared, a run of popularity that excited the surprise and envy of some playwrights, and became almost proverbial. It ceased to be acted in the days of Queen Anne; and whether it would attract now as a mere acted play, in spite of the slight put upon it by our fathers and grandfathers, it is impossible to say, since the ‘Pericles’ of Sadler’s Wells may be said to succeed only because it is a spectacle.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. Morley saw actor-manager Samuel Phelps‘ production of Pericles at Sadler’s Wells on 21 October 1854, the play’s first staging since the seventeenth century (aside from George Lillo‘s 1738 adaptation Marina). The role of Gower was cut as well as some scenes expected to cause offence, as indicated by Morley, and some new scenes added. Of the named performers, Phelps played Pericles, Edith Heraud was Marina and Fanny Cooper was Thaisa.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust