Comic opera

Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis

Source: Charles Belmont Davis (ed.), Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis (New York: Scribner’s, 1917), pp. 223-226

Production: Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund event, Drury Lane, London, 17 March 1898

Text: London, March 20, 1898

Dear Mother,

The Nellie Farren benefit was the finest thing I have seen this year past. It was more remarkable than the Coronation, or the Jubilee. It began at twelve o’clock on Thursday, but at ten o’clock Wednesday night, the crowd began to gather around Drury Lane, and spent the night on the sidewalk playing cards and reading and sleeping. Ten hours later they were admitted, or a few of them were, as many as the galleries would hold. Arthur Collins, the manager of the Drury Lane and the man who organized the benefit, could not get a stall for his mother the day before the benefit. They were then not to be had, the last having sold for twelve guineas. I got two the morning of the benefit for three pounds each, and now people believe that I did get into the Coronation! The people who had stalls got there at ten o’clock, and the streets were blocked for “blocks” up to Covent Garden with hansoms and royal carriages and holders of tickets at fifty dollars apiece. It lasted six hours and brought in thirty thousand dollars. Kate Vaughan came back and danced after an absence from the stage of twelve years. Irving recited The Dream of Eugene Aram, Terry played Ophelia, Chevalier sang Mrs. Hawkins, Dan Leno gave Hamlet, Marie Tempest sang The Jewel of Asia and Hayden Coffin sang Tommy Atkins, the audience of three thousand people joining in the chorus, and for an encore singing “Oh, Nellie, Nellie Farren, may your love be ever faithful, may your pals be ever true, so God bless you Nellie Farren, here’s the best of luck to you.” In Trial by Jury, Gilbert played an associate judge; the barristers were all playwrights, the jury the principal comedians, the chorus girls were real chorus girls from the Gaiety mixed in with leading ladies like Miss Jeffries and Miss Hanbury, who could not keep in step. But the best part of it was the pantomime. Ellaline came up a trap with a diamond dress and her hair down her back and electric lights all over her, and said, “I am the Fairy Queen,” and waved her wand, at which the “First Boy” in the pantomime said, “Go long, now, do, we know your tricks, you’re Ellaline Terriss”; and the clown said, “You’re wrong, she’s not, she’s Mrs. Seymour Hicks.” Then Letty Lind came on as Columbine in black tulle, and Arthur Roberts as the policeman, and Eddy Payne as the clown and Storey as Pantaloon.

The rest of it brought on everybody. Sam Sothern played a “swell” and stole a fish. Louis Freear, a housemaid, and all the leading men appeared as policemen. No one had more than a line to speak which just gave the audience time to recognize him or her. The composers and orchestra leaders came on as a German band, each playing an instrument, and they got half through the Washington Post before the policemen beat them off. Then Marie Lloyd and all the Music Hall stars appeared as street girls and danced to the music of a hand-organ. Hayden Coffin, Plunkett
Greene and Ben Davies sang as street musicians and the clown beat them with stuffed bricks. After that there was a revue of all the burlesques and comic operas, then the curtain was raised from the middle of the stage, and Nellie Farren was discovered seated at a table on a high stage with all the “legitimates” in frock-coats and walking dresses rising on benches around her.

The set was a beautiful wood scene well lighted. Wyndham stood on one side of her, and he said the yell that went up when the curtain rose was worse than the rebel yell he had heard in battles. In front of her, below the stage, were all the people who had taken part in the revue, forming a most interesting picture. There was no one in the group who had not been known for a year by posters or photographs: Letty Lind as the Geisha, Arthur Roberts as Dandy Dan. The French Girl and all the officers from The Geisha, the ballet girls from the pantomime, the bare-back-riders from The Circus Girl; the Empire costumes and the monks from La Poupee, and all the Chinese and Japanese costumes from The Geisha. Everybody on the stage cried and all the old rounders in the boxes cried.

It was really a wonderfully dramatic spectacle to see the clown and officers and Geisha girls weeping down their grease paint. Nellie Farren’s great song was one about a street Arab with the words: “Let me hold your nag, sir, carry your little bag, sir, anything you please to give – thank’ee, sir!” She used to close her hand, then open it and look at the palm, then touch her cap with a very wonderful smile, and laugh when she said, “Thank’ee, sir!” This song was reproduced for weeks before the benefit, and played all over London, and when the curtain rose on her, the orchestra struck into it and the people shouted as though it was the national anthem. Wyndham made a very good address and so did Terry, then Wyndham said he would try to get her to speak. She has lost the use of her hands and legs and can only walk with crutches, so he put his arm around her and her son lifted her from the other side and then brought her to her feet, both crying like children. You could hear the people sobbing, it was so still. She said, “Ladies and Gentleman,” looking at the stalls and boxes, then she turned her head to the people on the stage below her and said, “Brothers and Sisters,” then she stood looking for a long time at the gallery gods who had been waiting there twenty hours. You could hear a long “Ah” from the gallery when she looked up there, and then a “hush” from all over it and there was absolute silence. Then she smiled and raised her finger to her bonnet and said, “Thank’ee, sir,” and sank back in her chair. It was the most dramatic thing I ever saw on a stage. The orchestra struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and they gave three cheers on the stage and in the house. The papers got out special editions, and said it was the greatest theatrical event there had ever been in London.

Comments: Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was a celebrated American journalist and novelist, known for his war reporting and sharp eye for a sensational subject. Ellen ‘Nellie’ Farren (1848-1904) was a British actor and singer, renowned for her principal boy performances in Gaiety Theatre productions, which attracted a huge, chiefly male, following. She was forced to retire through ill health in 1892. On 17 March 1898 a performance in aid of the Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund at Drury Lane drew an unprecedented cast of late Victorian stage greats, and raised an estimated £7,000. The show included a production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s one act comic opera Trial by Jury, with Gilbert himself playing the Associate. Other accounts of the event state that Dan Leno appeared in a scene from the Drury Lane pantomime with Herbert Campbell, and not a scene from Hamlet.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Torrington Diaries

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

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

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

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

Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal

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

Text: Letter II. Tuesday Night.

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust