Theatre

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kembel as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Pantomime

Source: ‘The Pantomime – Boxes, Pit and Gallery’, Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News, 16 January 1869

Comments: The Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News was a British newspaper of the 1860s which reported on sports of all kinds and theatre productions. It was notable for its illustrations from wood engravings. The name of the artist of this illustration is not given.

Mr. Pope

‘Mr. Pope as Hotspur’, via LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/3491×2 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Source: Leigh Hunt, ‘Mr. Pope’, in William Archer and Robert W. Lowe (eds.), Dramatic Essays [by] Leigh Hunt (London, W. Scott, 1894), pp. 16-21. Originally published in Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, 1807

Text: When I place Mr. Pope immediately after Mrs. Siddons, everybody will see I do not criticise the actors according to their rank. But it is for the sake of contrast. If we have just had an example of almost perfect tragedy, we have now an instance of every fault that can make it not only imperfect but disgusting. Mr. Pope has not one requisite to an actor but a good voice, and this he uses so unmercifully on all occasions that its value is lost, and he contrives to turn it into a defect. His face is as hard, as immovable, and as void of meaning as an oak wainscot; his eyes, which should endeavour to throw some meaning into his vociferous declamation, he generally contrives to keep almost shut; and what would make another actor merely serious is enough to put him in a passion. In short, when Shakspeare wrote his description of “a robustious fellow, who tears a passion to tatters,” one would suppose that he had been shown, by some supernatural means, the future race of actors, as Macbeth had a prophetic view of Banquo’s race, and that the robustious phantom was Mr. Pope. Here is an actor, then, without face, expression, or delivery, and yet this complication of negative qualities finds means to be clapped in the theatre and panegyrised in the newspapers. This inconsistency must be explained. As to the newspapers, and their praise of this gentleman, I do not wish to repeat all the prevailing stories. Who does not know their corruptions? There is, however, an infallible method of obtaining a clap from the galleries, and there is an art known at the theatre by the name of clap-trappings which Mr. Pope has shown great wisdom in studying. It consists in nothing more than in gradually raising the voice as the speech draws to a conclusion, making an alarming outcry on the last four or five lines, or suddenly dropping them into a tremulous but energetic undertone, and with a vigorous jerk of the right arm rushing off the stage. All this astonishes the galleries; they are persuaded it must be something very fine, because it is so important and so unintelligible, and they clap for the sake of their own reputation.

One might be apt to wonder at Mr. Pope’s total want of various expression, when his merit as an artist is considered. It should seem that the same imitative observation, which gives so natural an elegance to his portraits on canvas, should enliven and adorn his portraits on the stage: that the same elegant conception which enables him to throw grace into the attitudes and meaning into the eyes of others, should inspire his action with variety and his looks with intelligence.

It is in the acknowledgment of gesture and attitude, but more particularly in the variation of countenance, in the adaption of look to feeling, that the actor is best known. Mr. Pope, in his general style, has but two gestures, which follow each other in monotonous alternation, like the jerks of a toy-shop harlequin: one is a mere extension of the arms, and is used on all occasions of candour, of acknowledgment, of remonstrance, and of explanation; the other, for occasions of vehemence or of grandeur, is an elevation of the arms, like the gesture of Raphael’s St. Paul preaching at Athens, an action which becomes the more absurd on common occasions, from its
real sublimity. If Mr. Pope, however, is confined to two expressions in his gesture, he has but two expressions in his look: a flat indifference, which is used on all sober occasions, and an angry frown, which is used on all impassioned ones. With these two looks he undertakes to represent all the passions, gentle as well as violent; he is like a quack who, with a phial in each hand, undertakes to perform every possible wonder, while the only thing to be wondered at is his cheating the mob. The best character he performs is Othello, because he performs it in a mask: for when an actor’s face is not exactly seen, an audience is content to supply by its own imagination the want of expression, just as in reading a book we figure to ourselves the countenance of the persons interested. But when we are presented with the real countenance, we are disappointed if our imagination is not assisted in its turn; the picture presented to our eyes should animate the picture presented to our mind; if either of them differ, or if the former is less lively than the latter, a sensation of discord is produced, and destroys the effect of nature, which is always harmonious.

The pain we feel at bad acting seems, indeed, to be entirely the result of a want of harmony. We are pleased when the actor’s external action corresponds with the action of his mind, when his eye answers his heart, when all we see is the animated picture of all we feel: we are displeased whenever the passion and the expression are at variance, when the countenance does not become a second language to the dialogue, when moderate tones express vehement emotions and when vehement tones express moderate emotions, when, in short, Mr. Pope is not Rolla or Romeo but Mr. Pope. A musician who tells us that he is going to play a melancholy movement, and then dashes his harp or his piano in a fury, cannot disappoint us more than this actor, when he raises from language merely sorrowful an expression of boisterous passion. The character of Hotspur has been reckoned a proper one for Mr. Pope, because it is loud and violent; these are good reasons certainly, and we would rather hear him in Hotspur than in Hamlet, for noise, like any other enjoyment, is delightful in its proper season only. But to act Hotspur well is a mark of no great talent; of all expressions, violence is the most easily affected, because the conception of violence has no sensation of restraint, it has no feelings to hide or to repress, and no niceties of action to study. The gentler passions give us leisure to examine them, we can follow every variation of feeling and every change of expression; but here we have leisure for nothing; everything is rapid and confused; we are in the condition of a man who should attempt to count the spokes of a wheel in a chariot-race.

Mr. Pope, in short, may be considered as an example of the little value of a good voice unaccompanied with expression, while Mr. Kemble is a proof how much may be done by an expressive countenance and manner with the worst voice in the world.

But perhaps as I can say nothing of Mr. Pope as a tragic actor, I may be expected to say something of him as a comic one, for he does act in comedy. Any one, however, who examines this double gift, will discover that to act in comedy and to be a comic actor are two very different things. Mr. Kemble performs in comedy, but who will call Mr. Kemble a comic actor? Who will reckon up the comic actors, and say, “We have Bannister, and Lewis, and Munden, and Kemble?” If Mr. Pope acts in sentimental comedy, what is called sentimental comedy is nothing more than a mixture of tragedy and comedy, or, if Dr. Johnson’s definition is to be allowed, it is sometimes entire tragedy, for he calls tragedy “a dramatic representation of a serious action.” There may be very often a serious character in humorous comedies, such as a sober merchant, a careful father, or one of those useless useful friends who serve as a kind of foil to a gay hero; but the actor who performs these characters never excites our livelier feelings or our mirth, and therefore cannot be called a comic actor. Lord Townley, for instance, in The Provoked Husband is merely a tragic character who has stepped into comedy: Mr. Kemble represents Lord Townley with much gravity and stateliness; yet nobody in the pit ever said at seeing this character, “Really that is very comic!” It is necessary to a comic actor that he should be able to excite our laughter, or at least our smiles ; but Mr. Pope never excites either, at any rate not designedly. It is for this reason that he has been placed among the tragedians, and that Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Henry Johnston, Mr. Murray, and Mr. Siddons will be placed among them too. All these gentlemen might undoubtedly be called comic actors, as Robin Hood’s companion, who was seven feet high, was called Little John; or we might say such a man was as comic as Mr. Kemble or Mr. Henry Johnston, just as we say such a thing is as smooth as a file. But upon plain subjects I would rather be plain spoken.

Comments: Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was a British essayist, journalist and poet, and one of the leading dramatic critics of his time. Alexander Pope (1763-1835) was an Irish actor and painter who was a regular member of the company at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Indirect Journey

Postcard image of Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, 1906, from Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 55-58

Text: One of the great joys of my life occurred during that holiday in 1912. It came when my father bought me a good, strong walking-stick from a shop on the north side of the town, just opposite Peasholm Lake. This was the first tangible expression of the hope that some time I should be able to walk more or less purposefully. In fact, with this stick I found that I was able to walk for five or six yards provided that the road was perfectly flat. An immense sense of liberation flooded over me. Years later (at a party, of course) I saw Elizabeth for the first time. As she came down a few steps into the room in which I was sitting there flashed into my mind
Henry Esmond’s first Vision of the radiant Beatrix descending the staircase in the home of the Castlewoods. I felt then as if a new planet had swum into my ken, like Keats opening Chapman’s Homer. I had the same feeling when my father bought the walking-stick, the first I ever had.

It held a promise of a world which contained such marvels as the glitteringly white and elegant Spa; the fascinating display of all that Yorkshire held to be high fashion every Sunday morning in what was known in those days as the Church Parade, when the rich visitors to Scarborough slowly walked down the hill from church in their finest attire, whilst we lined up on the pavement to gape at them in wonder and envy; the daily concerts held on the Spa conducted by the flamboyant Alastair Maclean, who, in his cloak and wide-brimmed hat, rather resembled the Toulouse-Lautrec posters of Aristide Bruant, but who was not, if he encountered my wheel-chair in the streets of Scarborough, above gravely saluting me; and best of all there were Catlin’s Royal Pierrots on the south foreshore. What young Gibson had begun, Catlin’s Royal Pierrots continued, especially one of its members called McAllister.

It was said that Mr Catlin, who himself appeared with the company, and despite advancing middle age did a sensational somersault at every performance, had begun his entertainment career on the sands in a fit-up booth, but when I knew his magical organization he had his own splendid theatre. This was quite an inspiration to me. It told me what opportunities were open to talent, and it occurred to me even in that early part of my life that if Mr Catlin had been able to force the door of success in his most improbable ascension, I might be able to do something of the sort myself. Not for nothing was I the nephew of Jabez, Frank, and Tom.

The Catlin shows were, in the first half of the programme, played in pierrot costume: peaked hat and pom-poms. It was this that brought me to the height of ecstasy, for I did not like the second half, in which the men wore dinner jackets and the ladies long evening dresses, anything like so much. All the players were delightful; they could, it seemed to me, sing and dance with miraculous skill, but one of them, the McAllister (I think his Christian name was Andrew) whom I have already mentioned, particularly entranced me. I was already convinced that Martin-Harvey was the greatest of actors, but after all I had only seen his genius in the pale reflections of the amiable Gibson, whilst McAllister was there on the stage, alive, Vital, amusing and overwhelmingly pathetic. Vesta Tilley and Little Tich were far more famous than he, for they were London stars, and McAllister was only a seaside entertainer, but he was the first actor I ever saw who could bring a lump to the throats of the audience, and send that shiver down the spine which many years later A.E. Housman said was the only sign by which he recognized that he was in the presence of great poetry.

McAllister was, however, funny as well as sad. He did two turns, in the first of which he told Scottish stories that doubled me up with laughter. Long afterwards, also in Scarborough, I heard the great Harry Lauder. In comparison with McAllister I found him smug and patronizing, conscious of an eminence which it seemed to me nothing in his performance justified. But McAllister would also do another turn, this time in the King’s English. This was a very serious turn, and it was to me the very summit of McAllister’s achievement. He would work us up into a tremendous passion and excitement with a monologue like ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’, though this was probably somewhat later in his career than my first visit to Scarborough. On that visit he recited ‘His First Long Trousers’. It evoked the ending of childhood, the finish of innocence, the moment when the father ceases to be his son’s protector, and the son takes his first timid and uncertain steps in the world on his own. It was wondrously sentimental, and those who themselves have no capacity for touching the feelings of an audience may well despise it. In this I cannot but consider them unwise. It is foolish to scoff at a kind of theatre for which you have no talent. The simple fact is that when McAllister recited ‘His First Long Trousers’ not only did tears pour down my face, but I understood better both the danger and the excitement of life.

There was something else about McAllister that profoundly moved me and deeply influenced me when I became a drama critic: he was not only a powerful artist but he was also a delicate one. He used to deliver his comedy talk wearing his peaked hat, but he recited his serious pieces bareheaded. His taking off his hat and his removal of the black skull cap underneath it was the first piece of imaginative ritual I ever encountered. I was stirred by this simple gesture of respect for the seriousness and reverence of life: the moment when he doffed his cap was always to me one of the high points of his performance. When in Godspell at Wyndham’s Theatre the clowns did exactly this before representing the Crucifixion, all the emotion I had felt when watching McAllister rushed back upon me. This particular scene (there have been others in other plays) is one of those which my feelings will never allow me to describe in level tones. When I think of it my voice always breaks. McAllister, without knowing it, taught me to appreciate Godspell. That, I think, would not have surprised him. He might have been somewhat more taken aback had he known that it was partly his use of ritual that enabled me to understand Genet. The knowledge might, in fact, have made him sad.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned British theatre critic, whose childhood was spent in Scarborough. Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, led by Will Catlin (real name William Fox) appeared at venues throughout the UK in the late 19th/early 20th century. He became associated in particular with Scarborough, opening the Catlin’s Arcadia venue in the town in 1909. A. ‘Mac’ McAllister was a member of the all-male troupe. The religious rock musical Godspell opened in London in 1971.

Remarks on Our Theatres

Source: Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Remarks on Our Theatres’, The Bee no. 1, 6 October 1759, reproduced in Essays and The Bee (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1820), pp. 11-17

Production: Henry Fielding, The Miser, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 September 1759 and Henry Fielding, The Mock Doctor, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 25 September 1759

Text: Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub-street is preparing its advice to the managers; we shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor’s legs, and another’s eye-brows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes, and shall have our lightest pleasures commented upon by didactic dulness. We shall, it is feared, be told, that Garrick is a fine actor, but then, as a manager, so avaricious! That Palmer is a most surprising genius, and Holland likely to do well in a particular cast of character. We shall have them giving Shuter instructions to amuse us by rule, and deploring over the ruins of desolated majesty at Covent-Garden. As I love to be advising too, for advice is easily given, and bears a show of wisdom and superiority, I must be permitted to offer a few observations upon our theatres and actors, without, on this trivial occasion, throwing my thoughts into the formality of method.

There is something in the deportment of all our players infinitely more stiff and formal than among the actors of other nations. Their action sits uneasy upon them; for as the English use very little gesture in ordinary conversation, our English-bred actors are obliged to supply stage gestures by their imagination alone. A French comedian finds proper models of action in every company and in every coffee house he enters. An Englishman is obliged to take his models from the stage itself; he is obliged to imitate nature from an imitation of nature. I know of no set of men more likely to be improved by travelling than those of the theatrical profession. The inhabitants of the continent are less reserved than here; they may be seen through upon a first acquaintance; such are the proper models to draw from; they are at once striking, and are found in great abundance.

Though it would he inexcuseable in a comedian to add any thing of his own to the poet’s dialogue, yet as to action he is entirely at liberty. By this he may show the fertility of his genius, the poignancy of his humour, and the exactness of his judgment; we scarcely see a coxcomb or a fool in common life that has not some peculiar oddity in his action. These peculiarities it is not in the power of words to represent, and they depend solely upon the actor. They give a relish to the humour of the poet, and make the appearance of nature more illusive; the Italians, it is true, mask some characters, and endeavour to preserve the peculiar humour by the make of the mask; but I have seen others still preserve a great fund of humour in the face without a mask; one actor, particularly, by a squint which he threw into some characters of low life, assumed a look of infinite stolidity. This, though upon reflection we might condemn, yet immediately upon representation we could not avoid being pleased with. To illustrate what I have been saying by the plays I have of late gone to see; in the Miser, which was played a few nights ago at Covent Garden, Lovegold appears through the whole in circumstances of exaggerated avarice; all the player’s action, therefore, should conspire with the poet’s design, and represent him as an epitome of penury. The French comedian, in this character, in the midst of one of his most violent passions, while he appears in an ungovernable rage, feels the demon of avarice still upon him, and stoops down to pick up a pin, which he quilts into the flap of his coat-pocket with great assiduity. Two candles are lighted up for his wedding; he flies, and turns one of them into the socket; it is, however, lighted up again; he then steals to it, and privately crams it into his pocket. The Mock-Doctor was lately played at the other house. Here again the comedian had an opportunity of heightening the ridicule by action. The French player sits in a chair with a high back, and then begins to show away by talking nonsense, which he would have thought Latin by those who he knows do not understand a syllable of the matter. At last he grows enthusiastic, enjoys the admiration of the company, tosses his legs and arms about, and in the midst of his raptures and vociferation, he and the chair fall back together. All this appears dull enough in the recital; but the gravity of Cato could not stand it in the representation. In short, there is hardly a character in comedy, to which a player of any real humour might not add strokes of vivacity that could not fail of applause. But instead of this we too often see our fine gentlemen do nothing through a whole part, but strut, and open their snuff-box; our pretty fellows sit indecently with their legs across, and our clowns pull up their breeches. These, if once or even twice repeated, might do well enough; but to see them served up in every scene argues the actor almost as barren as the character he would expose.

The magnificence of our theatres is far superior to any others in Europe, where plays only are acted. The great care our performers take in painting for a part, their exactness in all the minutiae of dress, and other little scenical proprieties, have been taken notice of by Ricoboni, a gentleman of Italy, who travelled Europe with no other design but to remark upon the stage; but there are several improprieties still continued, or lately come into fashion. As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes; this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow; for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury-lane. Our little pages also with unmeaning faces, that bear up the train of a weeping princess, and our awkward lords in waiting, take off much from her distress. Mutes of every kind divide our attention, and lessen our sensibility; but here it is entirely ridiculous, as we see them seriously employed in doing nothing. If we must have dirty-shirted guards upon the theatres, they should be taught to keep their eyes fixed on the actors, and not roll them round upon the audience, as if they were ogling the boxes.

Beauty methinks seems a requisite qualification in an actress. This seems scrupulously observed elsewhere, and for my part I could wish to see it observed at home. I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural, for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity, and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste, will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when for instance we see an actress that might act the Wapping Landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore, and while unwieldly with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger!

For the future, then, I could wish that the parts of the young or beautiful were given to performers of suitable figures; for I must own, I could rather see the stage filled with agreeable objects, though they might sometimes bungle a little, than see it crowded with withered or mis-shapen figures, be their emphasis, as I think it is called, ever so proper. The first may have the awkward appearance of new-raised troops; but in viewing the last I cannot avoid the mortification of fancying myself placed in an hospital of invalids.

Comments: Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was an Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic. The Bee was a periodical that he published himself. The Miser and The Mock Doctor were plays by Henry Fielding, both adapted from Molière. Antoine-François Riccoboni was an Italian actor whose treatise L’Art dit Théâtre was published in 1750.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Night Side of Europe

Illustration accompanying this chapter from The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 49-55

Production: François de Curel, La danse devant le miroir, Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, Paris, 17 January 1914

Text: “First nights” in Paris are a thing of the past. Paradoxical as this may seem it is actually true. For all the people who used to make up “first nights” audiences see the new plays at their répétition générale. Often two and even three of these functions are given before a new play is offered to the public — so that by the “first night” a play is stale.

A répétition générale used to be called a dress rehearsal — and as is the custom all over Europe the critics were invited to witness the performance, but they were placed on their honor not to write about the play until after its formal “first night.” To-day, however, a répétition générale is not a rehearsal at all. It is the first public performance of a play — yet entirely different from a “first night.” It is a sort of trial trip for a special public, and has become the dressiest and most sought after function in twentieth century Paris. It is also above all things, for the stranger, a marvellous lesson in humbug. The theatrical world of Paris has learned how necessary humbug is in modern life, and the répétition générale is a very excellent object lesson in the knowledge.

All who attend this function are the guests of the management. That is to say the manager, the author, and the members of the cast, the dressmakers, stage furnishers, scene-shifters, everybody who has anything to do with the production, has a right to invite a certain number of friends. This being so, the verdict of the répétition générale audience is the severest verdict which the play will ever get, and very often plays have been half-failures at this répétition générale, and boomed successfully for several hundred nights. For the general attitude is that of “I-dare-you-to-make-me-laugh.” People do not mind applauding so as to be polite, but so many people present are interested in the play business themselves, that comparatively few of them are very anxious for the play to be a success.

Quite an instructive entertainment at a répétition générale in Paris is, after listening to the “Mais c’est charmant! Quel esprit! Que c’est délicieux!” and similar exclamations of delight, to wriggle out of the lighted stalls or balcony into the comparative darkness back in the corridors and listen to what the exclaimers whisper after they have exclaimed. It is also very interesting to hear the different opinions expressed by the same persons to their own friends and the friends of the author or the actor or the actress of whom they are talking. In fact, the more one goes with eyes and ears open to the répétition générale the more one becomes convinced of the fact that if Ananias and Sapphira had lived in our day they would have been immensely popular favorites in Paris.

The iron door which separates the stage from the front of the house is always opened and left open after each act of the modern répétition générale, for two-thirds of the audience really has some right to go behind and congratulate the author, and the manager, and the actors, and the actresses, and the other third, which used to be refused admission, made such a noise about it that it became simpler and easier to let them all through. The principal business of each entr’acte is to embrace the author.

How poor M. François de Curel suffered the evening I was there! It was the répétition générale of La Danse devant le Miroir at the Nouvel Ambigu theater. With most of the audience I went behind the scenes at the end of the second act to congratulate the author. What I saw would have resulted in several sudden deaths in an American playhouse. Forty or fifty highly excited, long-whiskered Frenchmen were shoving and pushing each other about in their frantic efforts to kiss the author. They kissed the back of his head, his ears; in fact, every available place. When they were through the women got a chance. They mobbed him on all sides and kissed him until his face was streaked with rouge and face powder, his glasses broken and his hair rumpled like that of a football player.

I waited until the mob had left to attack M. Garry, the leading player, before I congratulated M. de Curel on his success. He was trying to wipe his mouth and cheeks with his handkerchief and when I only shook hands with him, and did not venture a kiss, he pressed my hand firmly and said “You are a real friend. Tell me, do you like the play? And do you think it will be a success?

“I like it tremendously,” I hastened to assure him, although I had never seen anything quite as bad. “But of course that does not mean it will be a success. Still, from the kissing you underwent, I should say that it looks like a winner.”

“My friend,” said M. de Curel, “at the répétition générale of my last play I was kissed by three times as many people and my play only ran two weeks.” And M. de Curel, let it be known, is considered one of the greatest dramatic authors of France.

I must give a very brief outline of La danse devant le Miroir, it is so typically Parisian. American theatergoers will be interested in it because its leading feminine role is played by Mme. Simone, who tried so hard to establish herself as a star on our stage.

Voila! Face to face with ruin, Paul Bréan throws himself into the Seine, rather than confess his love to Régine, whose fortune he is afraid he may appear to covet. But he is rescued from the river, and Régine offers him her hand. He refuses, and to establish between them a kind of equality, Régine makes him believe that she needs to be saved from dishonor. Out of devotion, he consents to give her his name. Then, learning he has been told a fairy-tale, he in turn plays a part: he pretends he still believes in her lapse. The result is a misunderstanding that is prolonged right up to the wedding night. Régine would like to ascertain whether Bréan is really a hero lover, or, on the contrary, merely a low speculator decked out with the mask of a knight, and Bréan, to quell her perplexities, shoots himself while she is embracing him.

However, Robert de Flers and M.F. Duquesnel, two of the leading critics in Paris, said it was very fine and Edmond See, another critic, added his word of praise. But Paris is a long way from New York.

I was told that some years ago the répétition générale was a real dress rehearsal. There were never to be more than thirty critics and other folk whose business was the stage, and they were expected to come back to the first night. If anything went at all wrong, it was done over again and rehearsals used to be over at three or half past in the morning.

Nowadays the dressmakers, a few critics, and a few friends manage to fill the house at the rehearsal which is called the dressmakers’ and photographers’ rehearsal, but they do not appear in evening dress. The real dress rehearsal is now two or three days before the show. By the first night the play is stale.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. François, Vicomte de Curel (1854-1928) was a French playwright. His play La danse devant le miroir had its premiere at the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, Paris on 17 January 1914. The actors mentioned are Claude Garry and Simone Le Bargy, known as Madame Simone.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin

Source: Henry Reeve, Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin, in the eventful winter 1805-6 (London: Longmans, Green, 1877), pp. 45-46

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Vienna, 12 November 1805

Text: Tuesday night, November 12.— Went to see ‘Othello’ performed at one of the great theatres; it was indeed a woeful tragedy. Some excuse may be made for the performers as they acted to empty benches; scarcely a hundred persons were in the whole house. The actors repeated the words as fast as possible. The piece is performed nearly as in the original. Roderigo is not killed on the stage, and Othello stabs Desdemona, and afterwards stabs himself. But all the beauties of Shakespeare seem to be lost in the harsh German translation. Othello ranted and strained and stormed, and poor Desdemona waddled backwards without dignity or grace. She was very fat and awkward, and more fit for Molly Maybush than the dignified daughter of a Venetian senator, who, by the bye, was a strong hale fellow who ran about and bellowed like a porter. The whole piece was a wretched murder, but I was told it is greatly admired when well performed. The directors of the theatres wished to shut them up during this time of alarm, but the magistrates ordered them to be open, and the people are to be amused whether they will or no.

Comments: Henry Reeve (1780–1814) was an English physician who undertook a tour through Europe over 1805-06, visiting the theatre on many occasions. ‘Molly Maybush’ was a character in John O’Keefe‘s 1787 comic opera The Farmer.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Over the Water

Source: Henry Leigh, ‘Over the Water’ in Carols of Cockayne (London: J.C. Hotten, 1869), pp. 41-43

Text:
Look always on the Surrey side
For true dramatic art.
The road is long — the river wide—
But frequent busses start
From Charing Cross and Gracechurch street,
(An inexpensive ride;)
So, if you want an evening’s treat,
O seek the Surrey side.

I have been there, and still would go,
As Dr Watts observes;
Although it’s not a place, I know,
F or folks with feeble nerves.
Ah me! how many roars I’ve had —
How many tears I’ve dried —
At melodramas, good and bad.
Upon the Surrey side.

Can I forget those wicked lords,
Their voices and their calves;
The things they did upon those boards,
And never did by halves:
The peasant, brave though lowly born,
Who constantly defied
Those wicked lords with utter scorn,
Upon the Surrey side?

Can I forget those hearts of oak,
Those model British tars;
Who crack’d a skull or crack’d a joke,
Like true transpontine stars;
Who hornpip’d à la T.P. Cooke,
And sang — at least they tried —
Until the pit and gallery shook,
Upon the Surrey side?

But best of all I recollect
That maiden in distress —
So unimpeachably correct
In morals and in dress —
Who, ere the curtain fell, became
The low-born peasant’s bride:
(They nearly always end the same
Upon the Surrey side.)

I gape in Covent Garden’s walls,
I doze in Drury Lane;
I strive in the Lyceum stalls
To keep awake — in vain.
There’s nought in the dramatic way
That I can quite abide,
Except the pieces that they play
Upon the Surrey side.

Comments: Henry Sambrooke Leigh (1837–1883) was a British comic writer and author of light verse. Several of his poems are about the London theatres of his time, and some of his poems were sung to music in the music halls. The Surrey Theatre, located in Lambeth, was founded as the Royal Circus in 1782 and originally was known for equestrian performances. It became noted for its melodramas for much of the nineteenth century. Actor T.P. (Thomas) Cooke was strongly associated with melodramas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Anatomie of Abuses

Source: Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London: Richard Jones, 1583), pp. 87-92

Text: Oh blasphemy intolerable! Are filthy plays and bawdy Interludes comparable to the word of God, the food of life, and life itself? It is all one, as if they had said, Bawdry, Heathenry, Paganry, Scurrility, and Devilry itself, is equal with the word of God; or that the Devil is equivalent with the Lord.

The Lord our God has ordained his blessed word, and made it the ordinary means of our Salvation; the Devil has inferred the other, as the ordinary means of our destruction; and will they yet compare the one with the other? If he be accursed that calls light darkness and darkness light, truth falsehood, and falsehood truth, sweet sour, and sour sweet, then, a fortiori, is he accursed that says that Plays and Interludes be equivalent with Sermons. Besides this, there is no mischief which these Plays maintain not. For do they not nourish idleness? and otia dant vitia, idleness is the Mother of vice. Do they not draw the people from hearing the word of God, from godly Lectures and Sermons? For you shall have them flock thither, thick and threefold, when the Church of God shall be bare and empty; And those that will never come at Sermons will flow thither apace. The reason is, for that the number of Christ his elect is but few, and the number of the reprobate is many; the way that leads to life is narrow, and few tread that path; the way that leads to death is broad, and many find it. This shows that they are not of God, who refuse to hear his word (for he that is of God hears God his word, says our Saviour Christ) but of the Devil, whose exercises they go to visit. Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of Heathen Idolatry? Do they not induce Whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof, but mark the flocking and running to Theatres and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see Plays and Interludes; where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such kissing and bussing, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like, is used, as is wonderful to behold. Then, these goodly Pageants being done, every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse. And these be the fruits of Plays and Interludes for the most part. And whereas you say there are good Examples to be learned in them, truly so there are: if you will learn falsehood; if you will learn cozenage; if you will learn to deceive; if you will learn to play the hypocrite, to cog, lie, and falsify; if you will learn to jest, laugh, and fleer, to grin, to nod, and mow; if you will learn to play the vice, to swear, tear, and blaspheme, both Heaven and Earth: If you will learn to become a Bawd, unclean, and to devirginate Maids, to deflower honest Wives: If you will learn to murder, slay, kill, pick, steal, rob, and rove: If you will learn to rebel against Princes, to commit Treasons, to consume treasures, to practice Idleness, to sing and talk of bawdry, love and venery: If you will learn to deride, scoff, mock, and flout, to flatter and smooth: If you will learn to play the Whoremaster, the Glutton, Drunkard, or Incestuous person: If you will learn to become proud, haughty, and arrogant; and, finally, if you will learn to contemn God and all his laws, to care neither for heaven nor hell, and to commit all kind of sin and mischief, you need to go to no other school, for all these good examples may you see painted before your eyes in Interludes and Plays: wherefore that man who gives money for the maintenance of them must needs incur the damage of praemunire, that is, eternal damnation, except they repent. For the Apostle bids us beware, least we communicate with other men’s sins; and this their doing is not only to communicate with other men’s sins, and maintain evil to the destruction of themselves and many others, but also a maintaining of a great sort of idle lubbers, and buzzing Dronets, to suck up and devour the good honey, whereupon the poor bees should live.

Therefore, I beseech all players and founders of Plays and Interludes, in the bowels of Jesus Christ, as they tender the salvation of their souls, and others, to leave of that cursed kind of life, and give themselves to such honest exercises and Godly mysteries as God has commanded them in his word to get their livings withal; for who will call him a wise man, that plays the part of a fool and a vice? Who can call him a Christian, who plays the part of a devil, the sworn enemy of Christ? Who can call him a just man, that plays the part of a dissembling hypocrite? And, to be brief, who can call him a straight dealing man, who plays a Cozener’s trick? And so of all the rest. Away therefore with this so infamous an art! For go they never so brave, yet are they counted and taken but for beggars. And is it not true? Live they not upon begging of every one that comes? Are they not taken by the Laws of the Realm for rogues and vagabonds? I speak of such as travel the Countries with Plays and Interludes, making an occupation of it, and ought so to be punished, if they had their deserts. But hoping that they will be warned now at the last, I will say no more of them, beseeching them to consider what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of God, and to provoke his wrath and heavy displeasure against themselves and others; which the Lord of his mercy turn from us!

Comments: Philip Stubbes (c.1555-1610) was an English pamphleteer, best known for his 1583 pamphlet The Anatomie of Abuses. This attack on the manners and customs of the times has much information on attitudes towards the theatre, specifically the London theatres, of which The Theatre and The Curtain, two venues located close to one a other in north London, are referenced in his diatribe. It is unclear whether Stubbes ever actually visited a theatre. The spelling in the above transcription has been modernised slightly for ease of reading. It comes from a section of the pamphlet entitled ‘Of Stage-Playes and Enterludes, with their wickednesse’. Interludes were Tudor-era theatrical entertainments.

Links: 1870 reproduction at Internet Archive
Facsimile copy at the British Library
Plain text version at Oxford Text Archive

Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): her diaries and letters

Source: Lucy Masterman (ed.), Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): her diaries and letters (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1930), p. 173

Production: Victor Hugo, Hernani, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 17 October 1879

Text: PARIS, Fri. Oct. 17. — A 2 hours’ drive in great cold and drizzle, went to Notre Dame and the Madeleine and all over the place. Table d’hôte and off to the Théâtre Français for Hernani and Sarah Bernhardt. I still think her greatest in her excessive quiet and repose, her tenderness is wonderful, the stormy bits are splendid, tho’ not as splendid here as in Phèdre. Mounet-Sully who acts with her very much overdoes voice and gestures, wh. is a great pity. The final Death scene very fine.

Comments: Mary Gladstone (1847-1927) was a writer and political secretary, daughter of the British prime minister William Gladstone. Her diaries regularly mention visits to the theatre, Hernani was a drama by the French novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust