Afterpieces

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 292

Production: Charles Johnson, The Wife’s Relief: or, The Husband’s Cure and Edward Ravenscroft, The London Cuckolds, Covent Garden, London, 10 April 1782

Text: Apr. 10. At C[ovent] G[arden] Theatre to see the Wife’s Relief, a comedy of — but not one of the best. The dialogue is tollerably [sic] animated & the business interesting. The sentiments of the first four acts are licentious to a degree, the edge of which may not perhaps be blunted by the black colors in which they are painted in the last. The underplot creates some confusion & the character of young Cash is unnatural & disagreable [sic]. . . . The parts of Riot & Volatil were not too good for Wroughton & Lewis like many others in which they appear. Such a character as Cynthia sits easy on Miss Satchel & Miss Mattocks was no bad Arabella. That kind of pert humour is her forte. If the ‘London Cuckolds’ was no better in its original state than when it appeared this evening cut down into an entertainment I never saw a sillier thing. They must be Cits. indeed, if not cuckolds, who can relish such low & absurd stuff.

The performers were of no note except Quick in Ald Doodle & Mrs Wilson in Jane, the intriguing chamber maid. Quick spoke a tollerable prologue to this piece as the ghost of Sir Richᵈ Whittington – his cat peeping from underneath his gown. The venerable magistrate compared the amusements of the citizens of London of his time with those of the present day.

It was Quick’s benefit & I never saw a fuller house. He deserves it as a performer of great merit in his cast.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. The Wife’s Relief: or, The Husband’s Cure was a popular comedy written in 1711 by Charles Johnson. The performers included Richard Wroughton, William Thomas Lewis, Elizabeth Satchell, Isabella Mattocks and the popular comic actor John Quick. It was accompanied by the afterpiece The London Cuckolds by Edward Ravenscroft, with Quick and (presumalby) Sarah Wilson, and a prologue from the ghost of Dick Whittington. ‘Cit’ was a slang term for someone who was not a gentleman.

The O.P. War

George and Isaak Cruikshank, ‘Acting magistrates committing themselves being their first appearance on this stage as performed at the National Theatre Covent Garden. Sepr 18 1809’ © The Trustees of the British Museum. The Riot Act was read from the stage on 18 September, but the placards, rattles etc. did not start appearing until the following day.

Source: Thomas Tegg, The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the O.P. War, in Poetic Epistles, or Hudibrastic Letters, From Ap Simpkins in Town, to his Friend Ap Davies in Wales; including all the best songs, placards, toasts &c. &c.Which were written, exhibited, and given en the Occasion; with illustrative notes (London: Thomas Tegg, 1810), pp. 1-6

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, plus The Quaker, New Covent Garden Theatre, London, 18 September 1809

Text: LETTER I

From Ap Simpkins to Ap Davies

SINCE now the O.P. battle’s o’er,
And peace the partisans restore,
To you, Ap Davies, my dear friend,
A brief account of all I’ll send,
From the beginning to the end:
But, lest your patience I should tire,
And send you more than you’d desire,
Lest I too many letters might
On this theatric contest write,
Which letters, as they’ll go by post.
Would in the end some shillings cost,
On leading points I’ll only dwell,
And all that’s entertaining tell.

Where the old playhouse lately blazed,
In Covent Garden, soon was raised
Another playhouse, as intended,
On which the managers expended
A sum indeed beyond all bounds,
It was thrice fifty thousand pounds!!!
In ten month’s time it was erected,
And from th’ exterior much expected.
But though so very grand without,
Within, ’tis very plain no doubt,
‘Twas on the eighteenth of September,
(The day I very well remember)
For which Macbeth was advertised;
A play so generally prized.
Near to the doors what numbers push’d!
As soon as opened in they rush’d.
At first the pit seem’d rather dull —
By six o’clock the house was full;
And the first lady that appear’d,
With loud huzzas by all was cheer’d.
The band struck up God save the King,
And several times the song they sing :
Then Rule Britannia next they play’d,
Which some to sing also essay’d.
The band their music might have sav’d,
While hats and handkerchiefs were wav’d.
At length the curtain up they drew,
And Kemble on the stage we view.
To give us an address he came.
To talk of “sparks from Greece” — the “flame
Of “an illumined age” — “the fire
Of Shakspeare,” which we must admire:
But so vociferously they roar’d,
I did not hear a single word.
The play began, but at this time
‘Twas like the Circus pantomime,
And gave as little satisfaction
As Elliston’s ballet of action.
When Kemble entered as Macbeth,
It was in vain he spent his breath,
For not a word could reach the ear:
E’en Mrs. Siddons I cou’dn’t hear.
With noise was Charles Kemble hail’d —
The uproar every where prevail’d.
“Off! off!” “Old prices!” were the cries;
“No Catalani!” and “No rise!”
What hissing, yelling, howling, groaning!
What barking, braying, hooting, moaning!
The people bellow’d, shouted, storm’d,
The actors in dumb show perform’d.
Those in the pit stood up with rage,
And turn’d their backs upon the stage.
Yes, my dear friend, their backs they turn’d,
And thus were the performers spurn’d.
The tragedy thus tragediz’d,
Brunton came forward, as surmis’d,
T’ announce for the next night the play;
But still they bark, and yell, and bray.
I heard him not, and all could see,
Was his lips move, then exit he.
The Quaker was the farce, they say;
I thought it was the Devil to pay
In short, it went on like the play.
I’m certain that the quaker quaked.
Each head too with the tumult ach’d.
About ELEVEN, or before,
The stage amusements all were o’er
But not until the clock struck one
Were those before the curtain done;
The cry of “Managers!” went round;
From all parts did the cry resound.
The eager, the impetuous crowd,
Then for old prices call’d aloud.
In vain they call’d — they brandish’d sticks,
The boards too trembled with their kicks;
When lo! upon the stage, indeed,
Two magistrates — yes, Nares and Read,
Made their appearance — ’tis a fact —
They came to read the Riot Act,
But all these worthies wish’d to say
Was treated like the farce and play —
“No magistrates! off! off! away!
Let Harris, if you please, appear,
Or send John Philip Kemble here.”
They thought to make the gentry quiet,
To prove that words were acts of riot:
But ‘twould not do — “Off! off! enough!”
So exeunt Ambo in a huff.
And now the galleries began:
They curs’d the building and the plan.
They thought the managers unkind —
They were in pigeon-holes confin’d.
Pat cries — ” I will be squeez’d to death;
I will be kilt for want of breath.”
Those in the upper boxes now
Assisted in the general row,
And, ‘midst their fury and their heat,
They happen’d to break down a seat.
Impossible, in such a fray,
But that some benches must give way;
At this, however, much displeased,
The Bow-street runners came and seized
Two or three gentlemen — they swore —
They dragg’d them out — their coats they tore.
These men it seems, on this condition,
Had to all parts a free admission.
‘Twas to the managers’ disgrace.
An officer, in such a place,
Should, uninvited, show his face.
But to the rest — the bell was heard,
And engines* on the stage appear’d.
This gave the folk some discontent:
They thought that Mr. Kemble meant
To play upon them. This gave rise
To further hisses, groans, and cries.
Some in the pit now form’d a ring,
They danc’d, and sung God save the King;
And while performing these wild feats,
They play’d the devil with the seats.
No matter — they evinc’d their spite,
Then bade the managers good night;
And I the same must bid my friend —
But take my word—on this depend —
My pen I will resume again, –
Till when your servant I remain.

Strand, Jan. 1810. S.

* The introduction of the water-engines on the stage was, it is asserted, through a mistake. Engines are kept in the theatre, and placed on the stage after the evening’s performances, in case of danger, particularly as the fire offices have refused to insure the house to the full amount. Mr. Kemble perceiving from his private box that the audience were not gone, ordered the bell to be rung for the stage lights to be replaced. This order was misunderstood by the prompter, and instead of the lights the engines were brought upon the stage. Certainly they might have been designedly brought on to intimidate the malcontents, but without the manager’s knowledge.

Comments: Thomas Tegg (1776–1845) was an English bookseller, publisher and author. His long poem ‘The O.P. War’ documents, through a series of ‘letters’ the turmoil that followed the decision made by Covent Garden Theatre to raise ticket prices to help cover the cost of the rebuilding of the theatre after the fire of 20 September 1808. At the re-opening of what was named New Covent Garden Theatre on 18 September 1809, and for three months thereafter, there were vehement protests inside the theatre from audience members against the price rises, dubbed the Old Price, or O.P., Riots. The actor-manager John Philip Kemble was eventually forced to lower the prices. Tegg’s poem documents the events in some detail across eighteen letters, with annotations as above. Letter I covers the day of the re-opening. The Riot Act was indeed read from the stage during the evening. The production of Macbeth included John Philip Kemble as Macbeth, his sister Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and their brother Charles Kemble as Macduff, though such was the noise throughout (and for the afterpiece The Quaker) that the performances were rendered inaudible.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 299

Production: Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, Drury Lane, London, 21 October 1782

Text: Mon, Oct. 21. At Drury Lane to see Mrs Siddons, the celebrated actress just transplanted from Bath. She is by no means equal to a Yates or a Barry, but having said this I allow she has great merit. She enters into her part with infinite judgement, energy & propriety. Her action is good, her voice pleasing. She excels in the pathetic. Her Isabella in the Fatal Marriage this evening drew tears from every eye of sensibility. A pretty figure of the middle size, fine eyes & a melancholy complacency of feature … I almost wish I had not staid to see the Alchemist now cut down into an entertainment of two acts. It hurt me to see Dade play Abel Drugger. Alas! O Garrick, we shall never see thy like again.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. The Fatal Marriage was a 1694 play by Thomas Southerne, which David Garrick adapted in 1757 as Isabella; or the Fatal Marriage. The Yates and Barry against whom Neville judges Sarah Siddons are Mary Ann Yates and Ann Street Barry. ‘Dade’ is the comic actor James William Dodd.

Covent-Garden Theatre

Source: Anon., ‘Covent-Garden Theatre’, The Morning Post, 6 October 1829, p. 3

Production: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Covent Garden, London, 5 October 1829

Text: The name of KEMBLE was exercised with magic-like effect at this Theatre last night. Plunged into difficulties, almost overwhelming, Mr. CHARLES KEMBLE exerted his best strength and influence: his wife returned to the stage, his daughter made her debut, and a brilliant and overflowing audience was the consequence. This was precisely as every friend of the Drama must have wished. the name of a family which has for half a century contributed so largely, and with so much distinction and honour, to the most rational  and intellectual of our amusements, ought not to be used in vain, or to be heard without cheering and liberal encouragement. On this occasion it met with enthusiastic support, and those who anticipated a display of hereditary genius were happily confirmed in their kindly hopes. That the difficulties of the Theatre have been most alarming there can be no question; but however desperate they may have been in their character, or however distressing to the Managers, we can hardly help rejoicing in their occurrence, since thy have been the immediate cause of giving to the stage another KEMBLE, and one too who promises to enhance rather than to depreciate the unrivalled reputation of her family. With the debut of Miss FANNY KEMBLE too, we are inclined to date the disappearance of the distresses of the Theatre, and therefore we shall make no further mention of them, but content ourselves with expressing a hope that the young Lady’s introduction to the stage will only be one of many acts of good judgment on the part of the Manager.

Before the commencement of the play, “God save the King” was sung by the Company, which mustered unusually strong, the different solos being given by Miss HUGHES, Mr. WOOD (who acquitted himself remarkably well), and Mr. HORNE, who appears to have returned to this Theatre. The national song was warmly encored, and the Theatre looked extremely handsome while it was singing: the whole of the audience were standing, the private boxes were full, and the dress and first circle of boxes were adorned by a great number of Ladies. As for the rest of the House, it was crowded to excess. The play was Romeo and Juliet, Miss KEMBLE of course being Juliet. In stature she is like her mother, being rather under than over the middle size; but she may not yet have completed her growth, being, as we are informed, and as she really appears, not more than eighteen. Her form, however, is rich in beauties. The contour of her throat, neck, and head, reminded us forcibly of Mrs. SIDDONS; and her arms have that roundness and capability of majestic action in which her aunt was so entirely unrivalled, In her countenance Miss KEMBLE partakes more of the beauties of Mrs. SIDDONS, and the expression of JOHN KEMBLE, than she does of the features of her father and mother. Her brow is like that of all the KEMBLES – lofty and full of deep expression; her eye is finely placed, dark and powerful; her nose is sufficiently prominent to give a good profile, and to ad to the effect of the other features; and her mouth has much of the character of that of her great predecessor, Mrs. SIDDONS, being capable of expressing tenderness, scorn, and triumph, in all their depth, bitterness, and lofty joy. The general character of her face is dignity; it is plainly and beautifully traced, although she has hardly yet attained the state of womanhood. Her voice is equal to every demand that even Tragedy can make. It is powerful, rich, and has great variety. It has none of the poverty of her uncle’s in particular passages, and little of the monotony of her aunt’s in level speaking. It often resembles her mother’s in sweetness, and is capable of declamation without any of the evidently acquired facility of her father’s. In the peculiar expression, however, for which each of her distinguished relatives have been celebrated, they are likely still to stand unrivalled. Without challenging the triumphant declamation and the agonizing bursts of Mrs. SIDDONS, Miss KEMBLE has an ample field before her, wherein she may gather

“Golden opinions of all sorts of men.”

On her entrance Miss KEMBLE was most enthusiastically welcomed: the pit rose in a body, and the cheers from the boxes were loud and long continued. She appeared to be greatly embarrassed, and did not recover her self-possession during her first scene. In her next scene, the masquerade, she made a certainty of success; the only difficulty was to predict the degree she would attain. There was in the delivery of the passage –

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”

a sensibility and a depth of feeling which gave an unquestionable indication of the possession of fine powers. Her exit too was marked by a melancholy but soul-searching passion, which admirably prepared for the succeeding scene. It was in this scene that her conception and her capabilities were at once developed. The garden scene is in itself a thing of beauties, and many of the passages received ample justice at her hands. the soliloquies appeared to flow from a heart wrapped up in a new and all-absorbing passion, and which, during the absence of the object it idolised, existed but in thinking of it. Nor did she deliver the passages addressed to Romeo with less felicity. They were full of fervour, and the passion was unrestrained, but it was pure, and natural from its purity.

“But farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me?”

was most beautifully given. The full effect was produced without violence of any description. The heart seemed to prompt the tongue, and nature to lend every grace to give the interrogatory force. Again, in the latter part of the scene, she characterised her love with admirable emphasis and expression. Her delivery was fully equal to the comprehensive words which SHAKESPEARE has assigned to Juliet :-

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have; for both are infinite.”

In her tone and manner there was something which bespoke the capability of Juliet, though yet a girl, undertaking the dangerous and appalling course she subsequently pursues. In her next scene, the scene in which the Nurse brings tidings from Romeo, there was a great deal of sweetness, but nothing calling for particular remark, unless perhaps we except the lines –

“Had she affections, and warm youthful blood,
She’d be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.”

In delivering these her action was peculiarly appropriate and original. In the next scene, however, she made “a giant’s step” in reputation. She rushed into the depths of tragedy, and although there was a great poverty or rather total want of action while she delivered the lines –

O, break, my heart! poor bankrupt, break at once!
To prison, eyes, ne’er look on liberty!
Vile earth, to earth resign; end, motion, here;
And thou and Romeo press one heavy bier!

the defect was more than compensated for by the agonizing burst with which she exclaimed –

“Banished! is Romeo banished?”

It was entirely in the manner of SIDDONS, as was the passage commencing-

“Blistered be thy tongue” &c.

In the next scene she achieved another triumph, and perhaps the greatest of the evening. After having in vain implored her parents to postpone her marriage with Paris, Juliet has recourse to the Nurse for advice:-

JULIET: O. Nurse, how shall this be prevented?
NURSE: – Faith, here it is,
Romeo is banished: all the world to nothing
That he dares ne’er come back to challenge you;
Or, if he do, it needs must be by stealth;
Then, since the case so stands, I think it best
You married with the Count.
JULIET. Speak’st thou from they heart?
NURSE. From my soul, too;
Or else beshrew them both.
JULIET. Amen!
NURSE. What? what?
JULIET. Well, thou has comforted me marvellous much.

The effect of these passages was splendid in the extreme. the dignity of the wife was suddenly called into action, and it was commanding as it was pure and lovely in its nature. The Theatre rang with applauses. The arduous soliloquy in the next scene she finished by one of the most perfect and beautiful attitudes we have seen for a long time. The last scene was unfortunately the least successful of the whole; she was badly dressed and badly painted, and the Romeo on the night was not of the slightest assistance to her. But Miss KEMBLE had been the admiration of the audience long before the close of the play; and looking at her performance, we should most decidedly give it the preference to every debut made since that of Miss O’NEILL. To say that it was destitute of fault would be as absurd as to say that it not did display a conception of the highest order, and much execution of a similar character. Having said thus much, we shall be content to await her next performance without more remark, when me may find time and opportunity to return to the subject.

Mr. C. KEMBLE sustained the part of Mercutio for the first time. On his entrance the applause was enthusiastic, and he acknowledged the compliment with great grace and feeling. Of his acting we have only space sufficient to say that his readings were perfect, if he was  not quite so airy as LEWIS, or quite so humorous as ELLISTON was wont to be. His death was managed very beautifully, and with much originality. The kindness with which he took leave of Romeo was excellently conceived and executed. As the peculiarity of the circumstances has induced him to resign Romeo, we are happy to see him in possession of Mercutio; on no other occasion, however, could we consent to his quitting the lover. Of Mr. ABBOTT we need say but little. He is precisely the same as he was before he went to France, and therefore a very moderate Romeo. He is destitute of tenderness. Mrs C. KEMBLE trod the stage and acted with so much excellent sense and spirit as Lady Capulet, that we could  hardly believe she had ever been absent from it, and heartily wished for her permanent return to it. Mrs. DAVENPORT as the Nurse was a delightful as ever. It was a piece of acting in itself worth a journey to witness. She was most cordially received. The other parts were sustained as usual; and at the fall of the curtain the applause was unanimous and most hearty. Mr. KEMBLE came forward and addressed the audience in the following words:- “Ladies and Gentlemen, from the kind indulgence with which you have been pleased to receive the first efforts of my daughter on any stage, I am induced to announce this tragedy for repetition on Wednesday, Friday, and Monday next.”

This announcement was received with great approbation, and the entertainments concluded with The Miller and his Men.

Comments: The review is of a production of William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet, at Covent Garden, London, 5 October 1829. Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) was the daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and niece of his sister, the actress Sarah Siddons. The financial fortunes of the ailing Covent Garden (in which Charles Kemble was a shareholder) were greatly improved following the great success of Fanny Kemble in Romeo and Juliet, and the production was a further success touring North America. The remaining lead performers named in this review were Theresa Kemble (Mrs Charles Kemble), William  Abbott, and Mrs Davenport (Fanny Vining), while other actors mentioned are Eliza O’Neill, Robert Elliston and William Lewis. The Miller and his Men was a two-act romantic melodrama by Isaac Pocock.

Links: British Newspaper Archive (£)

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. III, pp. 517-518

Production: William Shakespeare, King John, Drury Lane, London, 12 October 1866

Text: October 12th. — Went to Drury Lane Theatre, to see “King John.” I had little pleasure. The cause manifold: old age and its consequents — half-deafness, loss of memory, and dimness of sight — combined with the vast size of the theatre. I had just read the glorious tragedy, or I should have understood nothing. The scene with Hubert and Arthur was deeply pathetic. The recollection of Mrs. Siddons as Constance is an enjoyment in itself. I remember one scene in particular, where, throwing herself on the ground, she calls herself “the Queen of sorrow,” and bids kings come and worship her! On the present occasion all the actors were alike to me. Not a single face could I distinguish from another, though I was in the front row of the orchestra-stalls. The afterpiece was “The Comedy of Errors,” and the two Dromios gave me pleasure. On the whole, the greatest benefit I have derived from the evening is that I seem to be reconciled to never going again.

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 Shakespeare‘s King John at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, 12 October 1866. He recollects seeing Sarah Siddons as Constance from years before; she was of course long dead by the time of this performance.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Letters from England

Source: Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella [Robert Southey], Letters from England (translated from the Spanish) (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1808 [orig. pub. 1807]),  vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 33-35

Production: William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Drury Lane, London, probably 11 May 1802

Text: LETTER XVIII.

Drury-Lane Theatre.—The Winter’s Tale. —Kemble.—Mrs. Siddons.—Don Juan.

I here is nothing in a foreign land which a traveller is so little able to enjoy as the national theatre: though he may read the language with ease, and converse in it with little difficulty, still he cannot follow the progress of a story upon the stage, nor catch the jests, which set all around him in a roar, unless he has lived so long in the country that his ear has become perfectly naturalized. Fully aware of this, I desired J– to take me there on some evening when the drama would be most intelligible to the sense of sight; and we went accordingly yesternight to see The Winter’s Tale, a play of the famous Shakespeare’s, which has been lately revived for the purpose of displaying to advantage their two most celebrated performers, Kemble, and his sister Mrs. Siddons.

In the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the golden age of the English drama, London was not a tenth part of its present size, and it then contained seventeen theatres. At present there are but two. More would succeed, and indeed more are wanted, but these have obtained exclusive privileges. Old people say the acting was better in their younger days, because there were more schools for actors; and the theatres being smaller, the natural voice could be heard, and the natural expression of the features seen, and therefore rant and distortion were unnecessary. They, however, who remember no other generation of actors than the present, will not be persuaded that there has ever been one more perfect. Be this as it may, all are agreed that the drama itself has woefully degenerated, though it is the only species of literary labour which is well paid. They are agreed also as to the cause of this degeneracy, attributing it to the prodigious size of the theatres. The finer tones of passion cannot be discriminated, nor the finer movements of the countenance perceived from the front, hardly from the middle of the house. Authors therefore substitute what is here called broad farce for genuine comedy; their jests are made intelligible by grimace, or by that sort of mechanical wit which can be seen; comedy is made up of trick, and tragedy of processions, pageants, battles and explosions.

The two theatres are near each other, and tolerably well situated for the more fashionable and more opulent parts of the town; but buildings of such magnitude might have been made ornamental to the metropolis, and both require a more open space before them. Soldiers were stationed at the doors; and as we drew near we were importuned by women with oranges, and by boys to purchase a bill of the play. We went into the pit that I might have a better view of the house, which was that called Drury-lane, from the place where it stands, the larger and more beautiful of the two. The price here is three shillings and sixpence, about sixteen reales. The benches are not divided into single seats, and men and women here and in all parts of the house sit promiscuously.

I had heard much of this theatre, and was prepared for wonder still the size, the height, the beauty, the splendour, astonished me. Imagine a pit capable of holding a thousand persons, four tiers of boxes supported by pillars scarcely thicker than a man’s arm, and two galleries in front, the higher one at such a distance, that they who are in it must be content to see the show, without hoping to hear the dialogue; the colours blue and silver, and the whole illuminated with chandeliers of cut glass, not partially nor parsimoniously; every part as distinctly seen as if in the noon sunshine. After the first feeling of surprise and delight, I began to wish that a massier style of architecture had been adopted. The pillars, which are iron, are so slender as to give an idea of insecurity; their lightness is much admired, but it is disproportionate and out of place. There is a row of private boxes on each side of the pit, on a level with it; convenient they must doubtless be to those who occupy them, and profitable to the proprietors of the house; but they deform the theatre.

The people in the galleries were very noisy before the representation began, whistling and calling to the musicians and they amused themselves by throwing orange-peel into the pit and upon the stage: after the curtain drew up they were sufficiently silent. The pit was soon filled; the lower side-boxes did not begin to fill till towards the middle of the first act, because that part of the audience is too fashionable to come in time; the back part of the front boxes not till the half play; they were then filled with a swarm of prostitutes, and of men who came to meet them. In the course of the evening there were two or three quarrels there which disturbed the performance, and perhaps ended in duels the next morning. The English say, and I believe they say truly, that they are the most moral people in Europe; but were they to be judged by their theatres,—I speak not of the representation, but of the manners which are exhibited by this part of the audience,—it would be thought that no people had so little sense of common decorum, or paid so little respect to public decency.

No prompter was to be seen; the actors were perfect, and stood in no need of his awkward presence. The story of the drama was, with a little assistance, easily intelligible to me; not, indeed, by the dialogue; for of that I found myself quite unable to understand any two sentences together, scarcely a single one: and when I looked afterwards at the printed play, I perceived that the difficulty lay in the peculiarity of Shakespeare’s language, which is so antiquated, and still more so perplexed, that few even of the English themselves can thoroughly understand their favourite author. The tale, however, is this. Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is visiting his friend Leontes, king of Sicily; he is about to take his departure; Leontes presses him to stay awhile longer, but in vain—urges the request with warmth, and is still refused; then sets his queen to persuade him; and, perceiving that she succeeds, is seized with sudden jealousy, which, in the progress of the scene, becomes so violent, that he orders one of his courtiers to murder Polixenes. This courtier acquaints Polixenes with his danger, and flies with him. Leontes throws the queen into prison, where she is delivered of a daughter; he orders the child to be burnt; his attendants remonstrate against this barbarous sentence, and he then sends one of them to carry it out of his dominions, and expose it in some wild place. He has sent messengers to Delphos to consult the oracle; but, instead of waiting for their return to confirm his suspicions or disprove them, he brings the queen to trial. During the trial the messengers arrive, the answer of the god is opened, and found to be that the queen is innocent, the child legitimate, and that Leontes will be without an heir unless this which is lost shall be found. Even this fails to convince him; but immediately tidings come in that the prince, his only son, has died of anxiety for his mother: the queen at this faints, and is carried off; and her woman, comes in presently to say that she is dead also.

The courtier meantime lands with the child upon the coast of Bohemia, and there leaves it: a bear pursues him across the stage, to the great delight of the audience, and eats him out of their sight; which doubtless to their great disappointment. Sixteen years are now supposed to elapse between the third and fourth acts: the lost child, Perdita, has grown up a beautiful shepherdess, and the son of Polixenes has promised marriage to her. He proceeds to espouse her at a sheep-shearing feast; where a pedlar, who picks pockets, excites much merriment. Polixenes, and Camillo the old courtier who had preserved his life, are present in disguise and prevent the contract. Camillo, longing to return to his own country, persuades the prince to fly with his beloved to Sicily: he then goes with the king in pursuit of them. The old shepherd, who had brought up Perdita as his own child, goes in company with her; he produces the things which he had found with her; she is thus discovered to be the lost daughter of Leontes, and the oracle is accomplished. But the greatest wonder is yet to come. As Leontes still continues to bewail the loss of his wife, Paulina, the queen’s woman, promises to show him a statue of her, painted to the life, the work of Julio Romano, that painter having flourished in the days when Bohemia was a maritime country, and when the kings thereof were used to consult the oracle of Apollo, being idolaters. This statue proves to be the queen herself, who begins to move to slow music, and comes down to her husband. And then to conclude the play, as it was the husband of this woman who has been eaten by the bear, old Camillo is given her that she may be no loser.

Far be it from me to judge of Shakespeare by these absurdities, which are all that I can understand of the play. While, however, the English tolerate such, and are pleased not merely in spite of them, but with them, it would become their travellers not to speak with quite so much contempt of the Spanish theatre. That Shakespeare was a great dramatist, notwithstanding his Winter’s Tale, I believe; just as I know Cervantes to have been a great man, though he wrote El Dichoso Rufian. But you cannot imagine any thing more impressive than the finer parts of this representation; the workings of the king’s jealousy, the dignified grief and resentment of the queen, tempered with compassion for her husband’s phrensy; and the last scene in particular, which surpassed whatever I could have conceived of theatrical effect. The actress who personated the queen is acknowledged to be perfect in her art; she stood leaning upon a pedestal with one arm, the other hanging down—the best Grecian sculptor could not have adjusted her drapery with more grace, nor have improved the attitude; and when she began to move, though this was what the spectators were impatiently expecting, it gave every person such a start of delight, as the dramatist himself would have wished, though the whole merit must be ascribed to the actress.

The regular entertainments on the English stage consist of a play of three or five acts, and an afterpiece of two; interludes are added only on benefit nights. The afterpiece this evening was Don Juan, our old story of the reprobate cavalier and the statue, here represented wholly in pantomime. Nothing could be more insipid than all the former part of this dramas, nothing more dreadful, and indeed, unfit for scenic representation than the catastrophe; but either the furies of Aeschylus were more terrible than European devils, or our Christian ladies are less easily frightened than the women of Greece, for this is a favourite spectacle everywhere. I know not whether the invention be originally ours or the Italians’; be it whose it may, the story of the Statue is in a high style of fancy, truly fine and terrific. The sound of his marble footsteps upon the stage struck a dead silence through the house. It is to this machinery that the popularity of the piece is owing; and in spite of the dullness which precedes this incident, and the horror which follows it, I do not wonder that it is popular. Still it would be decorous in English writers to speak with a little less disrespect of the Spanish stage, and of the taste of a Spanish audience, while their own countrymen continue to represent and to delight in one of the most monstrous of all our dramas.

The representation began at seven; and the meals in London are so late, that even this is complained of as inconveniently early. We did not reach home till after midnight.

Comments: Robert Southey (1774-1843) was an English poet, historian and biographer, Poet Laureate for thirty years until his death. His Letters from England was written under the pseudonym of Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella and supposedly translated from Spanish (Southey was a scholar of Spanish literature and history). The fiction was that it documented a journey through England taken over 1803-03. There was a production of The Winter’s Tale, with Sarah Siddons, with a Don Juan afterpiece (author not known) at Drury Lane in London, on 11 May 1802, which is presumably the production described here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Boswell’s London Journal

Source: Frederick A. Pottle (ed.), Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 (Melbourne/London/Toronto: William Heinemann, 1950), pp. 256-257

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Nahum Tate), King Lear, Drury Lane, London, 12 May 1763

Text: Thursday 12 May. I went to Drury Lane and saw Mr. Garrick play King Lear. So very high is his reputation, even after playing so long, that the pit was full in ten minutes after four, although the play did not begin rill half an hour after six. I kept myself at a distance from all acquaintances, and got into a proper frame. Mr. Garrick gave me the most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears. The farce was Polly Honeycomb, at which I laughed a good deal. It gave me great consolation after my late fit of melancholy to find that I was again capable of receiving such high enjoyment.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. His London Journal was discovered in 1930 among a set of Boswell’s private papers. David Garrick‘s production of King Lear was first performed at Drury Lane on 19 November 1762, with Garrick as Lear. This was a version of the 1681 adaptation of the play by Nahum Tate, which cut characters such as the Fool and gave it a happy ending by preserving the lives of Lear, Kent and Gloucester, and marrying off Cordelia and Edgar. Polly Honeycombe (1760) was a one-act farce about the effects of novel-reading, written by George Colman the Elder.

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott

Source: Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1825-1832 (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1910 [orig. pub. 1890]), p. 287

Production: Émile de Bonnechose, Rosemunde, Comédie Française, Paris, 30 October 1826

Text: October 30, 1826
We went to theatre in the evening – Comédie Française the place, Rosemunde the piece. It is the composition of a young man with a promising name – Émile de Bonnechose; the story that of Fair Rosamond. There were some good situations, and the actors in the French taste seemed to me admirable, particularly Mademoiselle Bourgoin. It would be absurd to attempt to criticise what I only half understood; but the piece was well received, and produced a very strong effect. Two or three ladies were carried out in hysterics; one next to our box was frightfully ill. A Monsieur à belles moustaches – the husband, I trust, though it is likely they were en partie fine – was extremely and affectionately assiduous. She was well worthy of the trouble, being very pretty indeed; the face beautiful, even amidst the involuntary convulsions. The afterpiece was Femme Juge et Partie, with which I was less amused than I had expected, because I found I understood the language less than I did ten or eleven years since. Well, well, I am past the age of mending.

Comments: Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish novelist and poet, whose historical novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian were immensely popular and influential. Émile de Bonnechose (1801–1875) was a French poet and historian. The actress was Marie-Thérèse Bourgoin (1781-1833). The comedy Femme Juge et Partie (1821) was written by Onésime Leroy.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive