1850s

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

The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 152-155

Production: William Shakespeare (et al), Timon of Athens, Sadler’s Wells, London, 18 October 1856

Text: October 18.— ‘Timon of Athens’ has been reproduced again by Mr. Phelps, with even more pains than were bestowed upon his former revival of that play, which, when he first produced it, had been acted but a few times since the days of Shakespeare. As now performed it is exceedingly effective.

A main cause of the success of Mr. Phelps in his Shakespearean revivals is, that he shows in his author above all things the poet. Shakespeare’s plays are always poems, as performed at Sadler’s Wells. The scenery is always beautiful, but it is not allowed to draw attention from the poet, with whose whole conception it is made to blend in the most perfect harmony. The actors are content also to be subordinated to the play, learn doubtless at rehearsals how to subdue excesses of expression that by giving undue force to one part would destroy the balance of the whole, and blend their work in such a way as to produce everywhere the right emphasis. If Mr. Phelps takes upon himself the character which needs the most elaborate development, however carefully and perfectly he may produce his own impression of his part, he never by his acting drags it out of its place in the drama. He takes heed that every part, even the meanest, shall have in the acting as much prominence as Shakespeare gave it in his plan, and it is for this reason that with actors, many of whom are anything but stars, the result most to be desired is really obtained. Shakespeare appears in his integrity, and his plays are found to affect audiences less as dramas in a common sense than as great poems.

This is the case especially with ‘Timon.’ It may be that one cause of its long neglect, as potent as the complaint that it excites no interest by female characters, is the large number of dramatis personae, to whom are assigned what many actors might consider parts of which they can make nothing, and who, being presented in a slovenly way, by a number of inferior performers, would leave only one part in the drama, and take all the power out of that. Such an objection has not, however, any weight at Sadler’s Wells, where every member of the company is taught to regard the poetry he speaks according to its nature rather than its quantity. The personators of the poet and the painter in the first scene of the ‘Timon,’ as now acted, manifestly say what Shakespeare has assigned to them to say with as much care, and as much certainty that it will be listened to with due respect, as if they were themselves Timons, Hamlets, or Macbeths. Nobody rants — it becomes his part that Alcibiades should be a little blustery — nothing is slurred; a servant who has anything to say says it in earnest, making his words heard and their meaning felt; and so it is, that, although only in one or two cases we may have observed at Sadler’s Wells originality of genius in the actor, we have nevertheless perceived something like the entire sense of one of Shakespeare’s plays, and have been raised above ourselves by the perception.

It is not because of anything peculiar in the air of Islington, or because an audience at Pentonville is made of men differing in nature from those who would form an audience in the Strand, that Shakespeare is listened to at Sadler’s Wells with reverence not shown elsewhere. What has been done at Islington could, if the same means were employed, be done at Drury Lane. But Shakespeare is not fairly heard when he is made to speak from behind masses of theatrical upholstery, or when it is assumed that there is but one character in any of his plays, and that the others may be acted as incompetent performers please. If the ‘Messiah’ were performed at Exeter Hall, with special care to intrust some of the chief solos to a good bass or contralto, the rest being left to chance, and members of the chorus allowed liberty to sing together in all keys, we should enjoy Handel much as we are sometimes asked to enjoy Shakespeare on the London stage. What Signor Costa will do for an orchestra, the manager must do for his company, if he would present a work of genius in such a way as to procure for it a full appreciation.

Such thoughts are suggested by the effect which ‘Timon of Athens’ is producing on the audiences at Sadler’s Wells. The play is a poem to them. The false friends, of whom one declares, “The swallow follows not summer more willing than we your lordship,” and upon whom Timon retorts, “Nor more willingly leaves winter,” are as old as the institution of society. Since men had commerce first together to the present time the cry has been, “Such summer birds are men.” The rush of a generous impulsive nature from one rash extreme into the other, the excesses of the man who never knew “the middle of humanity,” is but another common form of life; and when have men not hung — the poets, the philosophers, the lovers, the economists, men of all habits — over a contemplation of the contrast between that soft town life represented by the luxury of Athens in its wealth and its effeminacy, and the life of a man who, like Timon before his cave’s mouth, turns from gold because it is not eatable, and digs in the wood for roots? With a bold hand Shakespeare grasped the old fable of Timon, and moulded it into a form that expresses much of the perplexity and yearning of our nature. He takes up Timon, a free-handed and large-hearted lord, who, though “to Lacedaemon did his lands extend,” found them too little to content his restless wish to pour himself all out in kindness to his fellows. He leaves him dead by the shore of the mysterious eternal sea.

I do not dwell upon the play itself, for here the purpose only is to show in what way it can be made, when fitly represented — and is made at Sadler’s Wells — to stir the spirit as a poem. Mr. Phelps in his own acting of Timon treats the character as an ideal, as the central figure in a mystery. As the liberal Athenian lord, his gestures are large, his movements free — out of himself everything pours, towards himself he will draw nothing. As the disappointed Timon, whose love of his kind is turned to hate, he sits on the ground self-contained, but miserable in the isolation, from first to last contrasting with Apemantus, whom “fortune’s tender arm never with favour clasped,” who is a churl by the original sourness of his nature, hugs himself in his own ragged robe, and worships himself for his own ill manners. Mr. Marston’s Apemantus is well acted, and helps much to secure a right understanding of the entire play.

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. He saw William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at Sadler’s Wells, London, on 18 October 1856. Samuel Phelps had first revised Timon of Athens in 1851 and again in 1856.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian

Source: Anon. [St. Petersburg correspondent], Le Nord, 5 December 1858, quoted in ‘Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian’, The Anglo-African Magazine, vol. 1 no. 2, February 1859 p. 63

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, St. Petersburg, November? 1858

Text: The success of the negro actor, Ira Aldridge, has been Wonderful. At his debut, people were curious to see an Othello who needed neither crape nor pomade to blacken his face. Many expected tears of laughter rather than tears of emotion, when they learned that Iago and Desdemona would reply to him in German. (The absence of an English troupe forced him to play with German actors.) Those who counted on this were strangely deceived. From his appearance on the stage the African artist completely captivated his audience by his harmonious and resonant voice, and by a style full of simplicity, nature, and dignity. For the first time we had seen a tragic hero talk and walk like common mortals, without declamations and without exaggerated gestures. We forgot that we were in a theater, and followed the drama as if it had been a real transaction.

The scene in the Third Act, when the sentiment of jealousy is roused in the ferocious Moor, is the triumph of Aldridge. At the first word of the wily insinuation you see his eye kindle; you feel the tears in his voice when he questions Iago, then the deep sobs which stifle it; and finally, when he is persuaded that his wretchedness is complete, a cry of rage, or rather a roar like that of a wild beast starts from his abdomen. I still seem to hear that cry; it chilled us with fear and made every spectator shudder. Tears wet his cheeks; his mouth foamed and his eyes flashed fire. I have never seen an artist identify himself so perfectly with the character which he represents. An actor told me he saw him sob for some moments after his exit from the scene. Everybody, men and women, wept. Boileau was right in saying to actors: ‘Weep yourselves, if you would make other weep.’ Rachel, in the fourth act of Les Horace, is the only artist who ever produced so great an effect. At the first representation the poor Desdemona was so horror-stricken at the terrible expression of the Moor, that she sprang from the bed and fled, shrieking with fright.

In spite of his stony nature, Aldridge can contain himself to those scenes which require calmness and subdued passion. In Shylock, to see him trembling with fear and indignation before the tribunal which is endeavoring to force Christianity upon him, makes one of those impressions which are never effaced. The severest critics find but one fault with him — that when speaking to characters at the back of the stage he has the bad habit of turning his back to the public. The director remonstrated with him about this, but it was of no avail.

Comments: Ira Aldridge (1908-1867) was an American stage actor who was the leading black theatrical figure of the nineteenth century. He specialised in Shakespearean roles, and enjoyed success in London and particularly across Europe and Russia. His first appearance in St Petersburg was in Othello on 10 November 1898. The Anglo-American Magazine was a monthly American journal aimed at a black American and abolitionist audience. It included reproductions from articles published in other journals, such as the above piece from the French newspaper Le Nord.

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Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Source: Henry Crabb Robinson, diary entry for 16 June 1851, in Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. III, pp. 383-384

Production: August Wilhelm Schlegel, Was Ihr wollt (adaptation of William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night), Royal Court theatre, Dresden, 16 June 1851

Text: June 16th. – (At Dresden.) Took a short walk after dinner, and found that I remembered much of the city, though a great part of it seems new, and not quite so gay as I had fancied it. In one respect we were very lucky. Schlegel’s Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” called Was Ihr wollt, was played, and greatly to our satisfaction. The only mortification was, that I had such a faint recollection of Shakespeare. But Brown, who recollected more, could follow the translation throughout. It seemed to us admirably given. Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Malvolio, all seemed to us quite in conformity with the English conception of the characters. A Madame Meyer Bourke played both Viola and Sebastian; and, when personating the latter, she gave a manliness to her voice and step which would have almost deceived us as to her identity. There was, of necessity, a change in the text at last. Another person, who managed to conceal his face, came in as Sebastian.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. This entry records a theatre trip in Dresden as part of a tour of Germany he undertook in the summer of 1851. He saw August Wilhelm Schlegel‘s Was Ihr wollt, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, at the Royal Court theatre, Dresden, on 16 June 1851. August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translations of Shakespeare‘s plays greatly helped popularise him in Germany.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Rachel in Andromaque, from http://www.larousse.fr

Rachel in Andromaque, from http://www.larousse.fr

Source: Henry Crabb Robinson, diary entry for 13 June 1850, in Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. III, pp. 364-365

Production: Jean Racine, Andromaque, Comédie-Française, Paris, 13 June 1850

Text: I went to the Théâtre-Français and saw “Andromaque.” I have no doubt Madame Rachel deserved all the applause she received in Hermione. Her recitation may be perfect, but a Frenchman only can be excited to enthusiasm by such merits. She wants the magical tones, and the marvellous eye, and the majestic figure of Mrs. Siddons. The forte of Rachel, I dare say, is her expression of scorn and indignation. It was in giving vent to these feelings that she drew down thunders of applause.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. He saw Jean Racine‘s Andromaque at the Comédie-Française, Paris, on 13 June 1850. Rachel (Elisa Félix) (1820-1858) was one of the great stars of the Comédie-Française, known especially for her performances in classical roles. She played an important in reviving interest in French tragedy, such as Racine’s Andromaque.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive