Afterpieces

Notes of a Journey through France and Italy

Mademoiselle Mars as Célimène in Le Misanthrope, n.d., via Gallica

Source: William Hazlitt, Notes of a Journey through France and Italy (London: Printed for Hunt and Clarke, 1826), pp. 114-125 (originally published in the Morning Chronicle, 17 November 1824)

Production: Molière, Le Misanthrope, Comédie-Française, Paris, November 1824

Text: MADEMOISELLE MARS (of whom so much has been said) quite comes up to my idea of an accomplished comic actress. I do not know that she does more than this, or imparts a feeling of excellence that we never had before, and are at a loss how to account for afterwards (as was the case with our Mrs. Jordan and Mrs. Siddons in opposite departments,) but she answers exactly to a preconception in the mind, and leaves nothing wanting to our wishes. I had seen nothing of the kind on our stage for many years, and my satisfaction was the greater, as I had often longed to see it. The last English actress who shone in genteel comedy was Miss Farren, and she was just leaving the stage when I first became acquainted with it. She was said to be a faint copy of Mrs. Abington—but I seem to see her yet, glittering in the verge of the horizon, fluttering, gay, and airy, the “elegant turn of her head,” the nodding plume of feathers, the gloves and fan, the careless mien, the provoking indifference—we have had nothing like it since, for I cannot admit that Miss O’Neil had the Lady-Teazle air at all. Out of tragedy she was awkward and heavy. She could draw out a white, patient, pathetic pocket-handkerchief with great grace and simplicity; she had no notion of flirting a fan. The rule here is to do every thing without effort—

– – “Flavia the least and slightest toy
Can with resistless art employ.”

This art is lost among us; the French still have it in very considerable perfection. Really, it is a fine thing to see Molière’s Misanthrope, at the Theatre Français, with Mademoiselle Mars as Celimène. I had already seen some very tolerable acting at the minor French Theatres, but I remained sceptical; I still had my English scruples hanging about me, nor could I get quite reconciled to the French manner. For mannerism is not excellence. It might be good, but I was not sure of it. Whatever one hesitates about in this way, is not the best. If a thing is first-rate, you see it at once, or the fault is yours. True genius will always get the better of our local prejudices, for it has already surmounted its own. For this reason, one becomes an immediate convert to the excellence of the French school of serious comedy. Their actors have lost little or nothing of their spirit, tact, or skill in embodying the wit and sense of their favourite authors. The most successful passages do not interfere with our admiration of the best samples of English acting, or run counter to our notions of propriety. That which we thought well done among ourselves, we here see as well or better done; that which we thought defective, avoided. The excellence or even superiority of the French over us only confirms the justness of our taste. If the actor might feel some jealousy, the critic can feel none. What Englishman does not read Molière with pleasure? Is it not a treat then to see him well acted? There is nothing to recall our national antipathies, and we are glad to part with such unpleasant guests.

The curtain is scarcely drawn up, when something of this effect is produced in the play I have mentioned, and the entrance of Mademoiselle Mars decides it. Her few first simple sentences—her “Mon Ami” at her lover’s first ridiculous suggestion, the mingled surprise, displeasure, and tenderness in the tone—her little peering eyes, full of languor and archness of meaning—the peaked nose and thin compressed lips, opening into an intelligent, cordial smile—her self-possession—her slightest gesture—the ease and rapidity of her utterance, every word of which is perfectly distinct—the playful, wondering good-nature with which she humours the Misanthrope’s eccentricities throughout, and the finer tone of sense and feeling in which she rejects his final proposal, must stamp her a favourite with the English as well as with the French part of the audience. I cannot see why that should not be the case. She is all life and spirit. Would we be thought entirely without them? She has a thorough understanding and relish of her author’s text. So, we think, have we. She has character, expression, decision—they are the very things we pique ourselves upon. Ease, grace, propriety—we aspire to them, if we have them not. She is free from the simagrées, the unmeaning petulance and petty affectation that we reproach the French with, and has none of the awkwardness, insipidity, or vulgarity that we are so ready to quarrel with at home. It would be strange if the English did not admire her as much as they profess to do. I have seen but one book of travels in which she was abused, and that was written by a Scotchman! Mademoiselle Mars is neither handsome nor delicately formed. She has not the light airy grace, nor the evanescent fragility of appearance that distinguished Miss Farren, but more point and meaning, or more of the intellectual part of comedy.

She was admirably supported in Celimène. Monsieur Damas played the hero of the Misanthrope, and played it with a force and natural freedom which I had no conception of as belonging to the French stage. If they drawl out their tragic rhymes into an endless sing-song, they cut up their comic verses into mincemeat. The pauses, the emphasis, are left quite ad libitum, and are as sudden and varied as in the most familiar or passionate conversation. In Racine they are obliged to make an effort to get out of themselves, and are solemn and well-behaved; in Molière they are at home, and commit all sorts of extravagances with wonderful alacrity and effect. Heroes in comedy, pedants in tragedy, they are greatest on small occasions; and their most brilliant efforts arise out of the ground of common life. Monsieur Damas’s personification of the Misanthrope appeared to me masterly. He had apparently been chosen to fill the part for his ugliness; but he played the lover and the fanatic with remarkable skill, nature, good-breeding, and disordered passion. The rapidity, the vehemence of his utterance and gestures, the transitions from one feeling to another, the fond rapture, the despair, the rage, the sarcastic coolness, the dignified contempt, were much in the style of our most violent tragic representations, and such as we do not see in our serious comedy or in French tragedy. The way in which this philosophic madman gave a loose to the expression of his feelings, when he first suspects the fidelity of his mistress, when he quarrels with her, and when he is reconciled to her, was strikingly affecting. It was a regular furious scolding-bout, with the ordinary accompaniments of tears, screams, and hysterics. A comic actor with us would have made the part insipid and genteel; a tragic one with them pompous and affected. At Drury-lane, Mr. Powell would take the part. Our fine gentlemen are walking suits of clothes; their tragic performers are a professor’s gown and wig: the Misanthrope of Molière, as Monsieur Damas plays it, is a true orator and man, of genius. If they pour the oil of decorum over the loftier waves of tragedy, their sentimental comedy is like a puddle in a storm. The whole was admirably cast, and ought to make the English ashamed of themselves, if they are not above attending to any thing that can give pleasure to themselves or other people. Arsinoe, the friend and rival of Celimène, was played by Madame –, a ripe, full-blown beauty, a prude, the redundancies of whose person and passions are kept in due bounds by tight lacing and lessons of morality. Eliante was a Mademoiselle Menjaud, a very amiable-looking young person, and exactly fitted to be an elève in this School for Scandal. She smiled and blushed and lisped mischief in the prettiest manner imaginable. The man who comes to read his Sonnet to Alceste was inimitable. His teeth had an enamel, his lips a vermilion, his eyes a brilliancy, his smile a self-complacency, such as never met in poet or in peer, since Revolutions and Reviews came into fashion. He seemed to have been preserved in a glass-case for the last hundred and fifty years, and to have walked out of it in these degenerate days, dressed in brocade, in smiles and self-conceit, to give the world assurance of what a Frenchman was! Philinte was also one of those prosing confidants, with grim features, and profound gravity, that are to be found in all French plays, and who, by their patient attention to a speech of half an hour long, acquire an undoubted right to make one of equal length in return. When they were all drawn up in battle-array, in the scene near the beginning, which Sheridan has copied, it presented a very formidable aspect indeed, and the effect was an historical deception. You forgot you were sitting at a play at all, and fancied yourself transported to the court or age of Louis XIV.!—Blest period —the triumph of folly and of France, when, instead of poring over systems of philosophy, the world lived in a round of impertinence—when to talk nonsense was wit, to listen to it politeness—when men thought of nothing but themselves, and turned their heads with dress instead of the affairs of Europe—when the smile of greatness was felicity, the smile of beauty Elysium—and when men drank the brimming nectar of self-applause, instead of waiting for the opinion of the reading public! Who would not fling himself back to this period of idle enchantment? But as we cannot, the best substitute for it is to see a comedy of Molière’s acted at the Theatre Français. The thing is there imitated to the life.

After all, there is something sufficiently absurd and improbable in this play. The character from which it takes its title is not well made out. A misanthrope and a philanthropist are the same thing, as Rousseau has so well shewn in his admirable criticism on this piece. Besides, what can be so nationally characteristic as the voluntary or dramatic transfers of passion in it! Alceste suspects his mistress’s truth, and makes an abrupt and violent declaration of love to another woman in consequence, as if the passion (in French) went along with the speech, and our feelings could take any direction at pleasure which we bethought ourselves of giving them. And then again, when after a number of outrages and blunders committed by himself, he finds he is in the wrong, and that he ought to be satisfied with Celimène and the world, which turns out no worse than he always thought it; he takes, in pure spite and the spirit of contradiction, the resolution to quit her forever, unless she will agree to go and live with him in a wilderness. This is not misanthropy, but sheer “midsummer madness.” It is a mere idle abstract determination to be miserable, and to make others so, and not the desperate resource of bitter disappointment (for he has received none) nor is it in the least warranted by the proud indignation of a worthy sensible man at the follies of the world (which character Alceste is at first represented to be.) It is a gratuitous start of French imagination, which is still in extremes, and ever in the wrong. Why, I would ask, must a man be either a mere courtier and man of the world, pliant to every custom, or a mere enthusiast and maniac, absolved from common sense and reason? Why could not the hero of the piece be a philosopher, a satirist, a railer at mankind in general, and yet marry Celimène, with whom he is in love, and who has proved herself worthy of his regard? The extravagance of Timon is tame and reasonable to this, for Timon had been ruined by his faith in mankind, whom he shuns. Yet the French would consider Timon as a very farouche and outré sort of personage. To be hurried into extremities by extreme suffering and wrong, is with them absurd and shocking: to play the fool without a motive or in virtue of making a set speech, they think in character and keeping. So far, to be sure, we differ in the first principles of dramatic composition. A similar remark might be made on the Tartuffe. This character is detected over and over again in acts of the most barefaced profligacy and imposture; he makes a fine speech on the occasion, and Orgon very quietly puts the offence in his pocket. This credulity to verbal professions would be tolerated on no stage but the French, as natural or probable. Plain English practical good sense would revolt at it as a monstrous fiction. But the French are so fond of hearing themselves talk, that they take a sort of interest (by proxy) in whatever affords an opportunity for an ingenious and prolix harangue, and attend to the dialogue of their plays, as they might to the long-winded intricacies of a law-suit. Mr. Bartolino Saddletree would have assisted admirably at a genuine prosing French Comedy.

Mademoiselle Mars played also in the afterpiece, a sort of shadowy Catherine and Petruchio. She is less at home in the romp than in the fine lady. She did not give herself up to the “whole loosened soul” of farce, nor was there the rich laugh, the sullen caprice, the childish delight and astonishment in the part, that Mrs. Jordan would have thrown into it. Mrs. Orger would have done it almost as well. There was a dryness and restraint, as if there was a constant dread of running into caricature. The outline was correct, but the filling up was not bold or luxuriant. There is a tendency in the lighter French comedy to a certain jejuneness of manner, such as we see in lithographic prints. They do not give full swing to the march of the humour, just as in their short, tripping walk they seem to have their legs tied. Madame Marsan is in this respect superior. There was an old man and woman in the same piece, in whom the quaint drollery of a couple of veteran retainers in the service of a French family was capitally expressed. The humour of Shakspeare’s play, as far as it was extracted, hit very well.—The behaviour of the audience throughout exemplary. There was no crowd at the door, though the house was as full as it could hold; and indeed most of the places are bespoke, whenever any of their standard pieces are performed. The attention never flags; and the buzz of eager expectation and call for silence, when the curtain draws up, is just the same as with us when an Opera is about to be performed, or a song to be sung. A French audience are like flies caught in treacle. Their wings are clogged, and it is all over with their friskings and vagaries. Their bodies and their minds set at once. They have, in fact, a national theatre and a national literature, which we have not. Even well-informed people among us hardly know the difference between Otway and Shakspeare; and if a person has a fancy for any of our elder classics, he may have it to himself for what the public cares. The French, on the contrary, know and value their best authors. They have Molière and Racine by heart—they come to their plays as to an intellectual treat; and their beauties are reflected in a thousand minds around you, as you see your face at every turn in the Café des Milles-Colonnes. A great author or actor is really in France what one fancies them in England, before one knows any thing of the world as it is called. It is a pity we should set ourselves up as the only reading or reflecting people—ut lucus a non lucendo. But we have here no oranges in the pit, no cry of porter and cider, no jack-tars to encore Mr. Braham three times in “The Death of Abercrombie,” and no play-bills. This last is a great inconvenience to strangers, and is what one would not expect from a play-going people; though it probably arises from that very circumstance, as they are too well acquainted with the actors and pieces to need a prompter. They are not accidental spectators, but constant visitors, and may be considered as behind the scenes.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. His Notes of a Journey through France and Italy records his impressions of a tour of Europe (not just France and Italy) made in 1824-25. It was based on articles Hazlitt wrote for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. His visit to the Théâtre-Français (Comédie-Française) to see Molière‘s Le Misanthrope took place around November 1824. The afterpiece was a reduction of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which Hazlitt says was similar to David Garrick’s Catherine and Petruchio but which was presumably not actually that work. The performers described include Mademoiselle Mars and Alexandre-Martial-Auguste Damas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of an Invalid

Mademoiselle Duchesnois as Joan of Arc, via Wikipedia

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819, vol. 2 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), pp. 283-288

Production: Charles-Joseph Laeillard d’Avirigni, Jeanne d’Arc à Rouen, and Étienne Gosse, Les Femmes politiques, Théâtre Français, Paris, 26 May 1819

Text: 26th. In the evening to the Théâtre Français. When a favourite piece is performed, it is necessary to be at the doors some time before they are opened. But the candidates for places have the good sense to perceive the inconvenience of thronging in a disorderly manner, and the established rule is to form à la queue as it is called; that is, in a column of two a-breast, and every one is obliged to take his place in the rear, in the order in which he arrives. This is done with as much order and regularity as would be observed in a regiment of soldiers; in consequence of which the whole business is conducted without the smallest tumult, and with ease to every one. It is true that the gens d’armes in attendance have authority to enforce this rule, if there should be any person so unreasonable as to refuse compliance; but still great credit is due to the French for their ready adoption of what is rational. The play was Joanne d’Arc. Mademoiselle Duchesnois was the heroine, and a most alarmingly ugly heroine she made; but bodily defects are of little importance if the soul be of the right temper. When that is the case –

“Pritchard’s genteel, and Garrick’s six feet high.”

Her face, however plain, is capable of considerable variety of expression; and, what is of more importance than beauty, there is a great deal of mind in her countenance; for this is absolutely necessary to command our interest and sympathy. Who can sympathize with a simpleton, even if it be a pretty simpleton? Duchesnois drew down much applause, and she deserved it;-she feels justly, and has the faculty of expressing what she feels. This is the extent of her merit; but here, where there is so much unnatural declamation, her style appears to the greatest advantage.

Mademoiselle Volnais, for example, with a plump unmeaning pretty face, chants out her part, with no more apparent feeling or understanding than a parrot.

La Fond, who is a great favourite with the audience, played Talbot with something that was very like spirit and dignity; but he can never conceal the actor; he is all “strut and bellow;” and his voice, though it has great compass, is harsh and unpleasant. The political allusions of which the play is full, particularly the prophetic denunciations of Joanne against England, were eagerly seized by the audience, and rancorously applauded. It must require all the vanity of the French, to sit and hear, as the audience did with patience and complacency, the most fulsome and disgusting flattery addressed to their national feelings, in the vilest and worst taste of clap-traps. The very gallery in England has grown out of its liking for this sort of stuff.

A new after-piece followed—“Les Femmes Politiques;” a pretty trifle written in elegant language, which was charmingly delivered. Mademoiselle Mars and Mademoiselle Dupuis played delightfully; Baptiste ainé looked and spoke like the old gentleman he represented; and Monrose excited a laugh without descending to buffoonery and caricature. This sort of conversational French comedy is delightful;-it is Nature in her best dress—polite—well bred—and sparkling.

But, in comedies where there is more room for the exhibition of comic humour, the French actors are perhaps inferior to our own. We shall in vain look for parallels of what Lewis was, or what Munden and Dowton are; and even with respect to Mademoiselle Mars, excellent as she is in the first and highest walks of comedy, for which she seems designed by nature—being very beautiful, very graceful, and perfectly well-bred;—yet, in characters of archness and humour, she might put a little more heart, and a great deal more mind into her representations. We miss the force, the richness, and the warmth of Mrs. Jordan’s acting, and the exquisite point that she had the art of giving to comic dialogue; which only wanted the embellishments and good-breeding of the French Thalia, to constitute a perfect actress.

The point of perfection would perhaps be found somewhere between the styles of the two nations. To take an example from the Tartuffe —the famous scene between Tartuffe and Elmire is scarcely played up to the intention of the author, by Damas and Mademoiselle Mars, and it certainly might be coloured higher, without overstepping the modesty of nature. Dowton, in Cantwell, may go a little too far with Lady Lambert—and yet who can think so that remembers the effect produced by his management of the interview?— but Damas, in Tartuffe, does not go far enough with Elmire. The scene “comes tardy off:”—bienséance, when carried too far, is a millstone round the neck of tragedy and comedy. Congreve says well, that a scene on the stage must represent nature, but in warmer colours than it exists in reality. It is in Molière particularly, perhaps exclusively, that the French comedians seem to fall short of the author; for Molière is the most humorous of all their writers. He is the Fielding of France, and there is a richness and a raciness about him which are sometimes frittered away in the representation.

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The play w=he saw at the Théâtre Français (the Comédie-Française) was Charles-Joseph Laeillard d’Avirigni’s Jeanne d’Arc à Rouen, with Joan played by Joséphine Duchesnois. The afterpiece was Les Femmes politiques, a verse comedy by Étienne Gosse. Other performers mentioned include Mlle. Volnais, M. Lafond, Mademoiselle Mars, Mlle. Dupuis and Nicolas Anselme Baptiste (Baptiste aîné).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kemble 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

Boswell for the Defence

Source: William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell for the Defence: 1769-1774 (London: William Heinemann, 1960), p. 238

Production: George Colman the elder, The Man of Business, and William O’Brien, Cross Purposes, Edinburgh, 16 July 1774

Text: Saturday 16 July [1774]: … At six I had a hackney-coach which carried Mrs. Montgomerie, Claud, my wife, and me to the play. There was just forty people in the boxes and pit. The play was The Man of Business, and the farce, Cross Purposes. It was wonderful to see with what spirit the players performed. In one view it was more agreeable tonight than being at a crowded play. One could attend fully to what passed on the stage, whereas in a great audience the attention is distracted and one has a great deal to do in behaving properly. The difference was the same as viewing a country when upon a calm horse at a slow walk or viewing it upon a fiery horse at a gallop, when you must attend to the reins and to your seat. But the laughable passages did not go off so well as in a crowd, for laughter is augmented by sympathetic power. Supped quietly at home.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Lord Auchinleck. The plays he saw were the comedy The Man of Business by George Colman the Elder and the afterpiece Cross-Purposes by the actor William O’Brien, both men being known to Boswell. I have not been able to identify the small theatre Boswell visited.

An Unconscious Autobiography

Source: Thatcher T.P. Luquer (ed.), An Unconscious Autobiography: William Osborn Payne’s diary and letters, 1796 to 1804 (New York: privately printed, 1938), pp. 21-22

Production: Arthur Murphy, The Grecian Daughter plus The Shipwreck, Holliday Street Theater, Baltimore, 3 December 1798

Text: 1798 Decem 3. Went to the Play – which was the Grecian Daughter. Mrs. Merry acted the Part of Euphrasia. In it she exceeded every Thing, that I have ever seen before in the Theatrical Way – Her voice – Attitudes – Expression & Countenance were admirable – & I cannot conceive an Idea above her performance. Mr. Wynel [sic] acted the Part of Evander – with much Taste & accuracy. Mr. Warren as Dionysius played correctly – but I do not think him a Pleasing Actor. Mr. Hardinge as Phocion was but middling – his Irish Brogue hurt the Performance. He possesses no Dignity of Action or Attitude.

The Farce, which was the Shipwreck, afforded amusement – but observations take too much Time to bestow them on a Farce.

The Tragedy of the Grecian Daughter is the most Pleasing one I ever saw – it concludes happily, which the most of Tragedies do not. The Affection of Euphrasia to her Father, her Constancy, her Fortitude & Heroism – charm the mind & the happy Issue which ended all her misfortunes renders the Spectator happy.

Mr. Taylor objects strongly to my visiting the Plays – he says he cannot find an excuse, either to himself, or to my Father, for bringing me up in such a dissipated Way, as he pleases to name it. I am sorry for it. Certainly it is expensive, but I think it the Best possible School for Morality & Knowledge of the World – my Father always told me so & that if he could afford it, I should attend the Theatre constantly. Mr. T. calls it Dissipation; to most of those who attend Plays it is so, but I am always an attentive observer of what Passes without entering into any of the Dissipated scenes which I see going on. I never walk the Lobby, stand at the Bar drinking – or in the Oyster House – but always get the most Instruction I can out of everything I see and hear – whether Real or acted. It is a School which in some measure supplies the Plan of experience by shewing scenes which tho’ Generally a little Exaggerated, Still shew the Passions, the Faults, the Weaknesses of men – & there are those who will Learn Wisdom only by Experience – who if They will Pay attention, may make the Stage answer a very good Purpose to Them.

Comments: William Osborn Payne (1783-1804) was an American who died young, leaving a diary that was later printed privately. His younger brother was the actor, playwright and poet John Howard Payne (author of ‘Home Sweet Home’). The Grecian Daughter was a tragedy by the Irish author Arthur Murphy. The leading performer in the production seen by Payne at the Holliday Street Theater, Baltimore, was Ann Brunton Merry (1768-1808), a British actress who enjoyed considerable success in America from 1796 onwards. The part of Euphrasia in The Grecian Daughter was one of her signature roles. Other performers mentioned include Thomas Wignell (later Ann Merry’s second husband) and William Warren (later Ann Merry’s third husband). The play was accompanied by the comic opera The Shipwreck.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

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. 258-259

Production: Thomas Morton, The Cure for the Heart-ache and George Colman the Younger, The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; or, The Rover of Weimar, Haymarket Theatre, London, July 1811

Text: The comedy called the Cure for the Heart-ache was acted yesterday at the theatre of the Hay-market. Elliston and Munden appeared in it, and gave us great pleasure, although they exaggerated the exaggerations of the play. But the taste of the English public requires this, — as thistles alone have power to stimulate the palate of certain animals. The object of the petite piece called the Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh, was to ridicule the perverted morality and sentiments of the German drama, and at the same time the exhibition of horses on the stage. One of the personages has two wives, and one of the wives two husbands. One of the husbands, a prisoner in the castle of a merciless tyrant (Duke of Saxe Weimar) is liberated by the other husband, for no other apparent purpose but to get rid of one of his wives. He besieges the castle with a troop of horse, and batters down its walls with pistol-shot. The horses consist of a head and a tail, fastened before and behind the performers, with two sham legs of the rider, dangling about on each side, and a deep housing hiding the real legs. All the cant, childishness, grossness, and crude philosophy of the German drama was, of course, mustered together, and excited much risibility; the horses climbed walls, leapt, kicked, fought, lay down, and died, as Mr Kemble’s horses might have done. All this was very ridiculous, — but I am not sure that the laugh of the audience was not more with the thing ridiculed, than at it. The English public is not easily burlesqued out of its pleasures, and to it a caricature is still a likeness. Some friends of the real quadrupeds hissed, but clapping got the better. The pale face and nares acutissimae of the ex-minister, Mr Canning was pointed out to us in the next box, in company with Lord M.; he laughed very heartily, — and the nature of the laugh of the author of the Antijacobin could not be mistaken.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The productions he saw at the Haymarket were Thomas Morton‘s comedy The Cure for the Heart-Ache, with Robert Elliston and Joseph Munden, and the afterpiece The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; or, The Rover of Weimar, by George Colman the Younger. This was a parody of Timour the Tartar, a popular equistrian afterpiece by M.G. ‘Monk’ Lewis which had been put on at Covent Garden. The British politician (and future Prime Minister) George Canning had founded the newspaper The Anti-Jacobin and had written a dramatic parody, The Rovers, from which Colman borrowed ideas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America

‘Interior View of Chestnut Street (New) Theatre’ (1798?), Penn Library

Source: Henry Wansey, The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America in the Summer of 1794 (Salisbury/London: J. Easton/ G. and T. Wilkie, 1796), pp. 126-127

Production: Elizabeth Inchbald, Every One Has His Fault, Chestnut Street (New) Theatre, Philadelphia, 6 June 1794

Text: In the evening, I went to the new Theatre, to see Mrs. Cowley’s Play, “Every One has his Fault,” with the Farce of “No Song No Supper.” Mrs. Whitlock, sister to Mrs. Siddons, is the chief actress; and, to my surprise, I recognized Darley, one of our actors, last winter at Salisbury, in the character of Crop. It is an elegant and convenient theatre, as large as that of Covent Garden; and, to judge from the dress and appearance of the company around me, and the actors and scenery, I should have thought I had still been in England. The ladies wore the small bonnets of the same fashion as those I saw when I left England; some of chequered straw, &c. some with their hair full dressed, without caps, as with us, and very few in the French style. The younger ladies with their hair flowing in ringlets on their shoulders. The gentlemen with round hats, their coats with high collars, and cut quite in the English fashion, and many in silk striped coats. The scenery of the stage excellent, particularly a view on the Skuylkill [i.e. Schuylkill River], about two miles from the city. The greatest part of the scenes, however, belonged once to Lord Barrymore’s Theatre, at Wargrave. The motto over the stage is novel:— “The Eagle suffers little Birds to sing.” Thereby hangs a tale. When it was in contemplation to build this Theatre, it was strongly opposed by the Quakers, who used all their influence with Congress to prevent it, as tending to corrupt the manners of the people, and encrease too much the love of pleasure. It was, however, at length carried, and this motto from Shakespear was chosen. It is applicable in another sense; for the State House, where Congress sits, is directly opposite to it, both being in Chesnut-street, and both houses are often performing at the same time. Yet the Eagle (the emblem adopted by the American government) is no ways interrupted by the chattering of these mock birds with their mimic Tones.

Comments: Henry Wansey (1752?-1827) was an English antiquarian and traveller. In 1794 he visited the United States of America and two years later published an account of his travels, including meeting President George Washington. The play he saw at the Chestnut Street Theatre (aka The New Theatre), Every One Has His Fault, was written by Elizabeth Inchbald, not Hannah Cowley, while the operatic afterpiece No Song No Supper had music by Stephen Storace and a libretto by Prince Hoare. The lead actress was Elizabeth Whitlock, sister to Sarah Siddons. Philadelphia acted as the temporary capital of the United States, 1790–1800, while Washington D.C. was under construction. “The Eagle suffers little Birds to sing” comes from Titus Andronicus.

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. 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.