Source: Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy (London: Bradbury & Evans, Whitefriars, 1846), pp. 68-72
Production: Anon., St. Helena, or the Death of Napoleon, Genoa, 1844
Text: The Theatre of Puppets, or Marionetti — a famous company from Milan — is, without any exception, the drollest exhibition I ever beheld in my life. I never saw anything so exquisitely ridiculous. They look between four and five feet high, but are really much smaller; for when a musician in the orchestra happens to put his hat on the stage, it becomes alarmingly gigantic, and almost blots out an actor. They usually play a comedy, and a ballet. The comic man in the comedy I saw one summer night, is a waiter at an hotel. There never was such a locomotive actor, since the world began. Great pains are taken with him. He has extra joints in his legs: and a practical eye, with which he winks at the pit, in a manner that is absolutely insupportable to a stranger, but which the initiated audience, mainly composed of the common people, receive (so they do everything else) quite as a matter of course, and as if he were a man. His spirits are prodigious. He continually shakes his legs, and winks his eye. And there is a heavy father with grey hair, who sits down on the regular conventional stage-bank, and blesses his daughter in the regular conventional way, who is tremendous. No one would suppose it possible that anything short of a real man could be so tedious. It is the triumph of art.
In the ballet, an Enchanter runs away with the Bride, in the very hour of her nuptials. He brings her to his cave, and tries to soothe her. They sit down on a sofa (the regular sofa! in the regular place, O.P. Second Entrance!) and a procession of musicians enter; one creature playing a drum, and knocking himself off his legs at every blow. These failing to delight her, dancers appear. Four first; then two; the two; the flesh-coloured two. The way in which they dance; the height to which they spring; the impossible and inhuman extent to which they pirouette; the revelation of their preposterous legs; the coming down with a pause, on the very tips of their toes, when the music requires it; the gentleman’s retiring up, when it is the lady’s turn; and the lady’s retiring up when it is the gentleman’s turn; the final passion of a pas-de-deux; and the going off with a bound! — I shall never see a real ballet, with a composed coutenance, again.
I went, another night, to see these Puppets act a play called “St. Helena, or the Death of Napoleon.” It began by the disclosure of Napoleon, with an immense head, seated on a sofa in his chamber at St. Helena; to whom his valet entered, with this obscure annoucement:
“Sir Yew ud se on Low!” (the ow, as in cow).
Sir Hudson (that you could have seen his regimentals!) was a perfect mammoth of a man, to Napoleon; hideously ugly; with a monstrously disproportionate face, and a great clump for the lower-jaw, to express his tyrannical and obdurate nature. He began his system of persecution, by calling his prisoner “General Buonaparte;” to which the latter replied, with the deepest tragedy, “Sir Yew ud se on Low, call me not thus. Repeat that phrase and leave me! I am Napoleon, Emperor of France!” Sir Yew ud se on, nothing daunted, proceeded to entertain him with an ordinance of the British Government, regulating the state he should preserve, and the furniture of his rooms: and limiting his attendants to four or five persons, “Four or five for me!” said Napoleon. “Me! One hundred thousand men were lately at my sole command; and this English officer talks of four or five for me!” Throughout the piece, Napoleon (who talked very like the real Napoleon, and was, for ever, having small soliloquies by himself) was very bitter on “these English officers,” and “these English soldiers:” to the great satisfaction of the audience, who were perfectly delighted to have Low bullied; and who, whenever Low said “General Buonaparte” (which he always did: always receiving the same correction) quite execrated him. It would be hard to say why; for Italians have little cause to sympathise with Napoleon, Heaven knows.
There was no plot at all, except that a French officer disguised as an Englishman, came to propound a plan of escape; and being discovered, but not before Napoleon had magnanimously refused to steal his freedom, was immediately ordered off by Low to be hanged. In two very long speeches, which Low made memorable, by winding up with “Yas!” — to show that he was English — which brought down thunders of applause. Napoleon was so affected by this catastrophe, that he fainted away on the spot, and was carried out by two other puppets. Judging from what followed, it would appear that he never recovered the shock; for the next act showed him, in a clean shirt, in his bed (curtains crimson and white), where a lady, prematurely dressed in mourning, brought two little children, who kneeled down by the bed-side, while he made a decent end; the last word on his lips being “Vatterlo.”
It was unspeakably ludicrous. Buonaparte’s boots were so wonderfully beyond control, and did such marvellous things of their own accord: doubling themselves up, and getting under tables, and dangling in the air, and sometimes skating away with him, out of all human knowledge, when he was in full speech — mischances which were not rendered the less absurd, by a settled melancholy depicted in his face. To put an end to one conference with Low, he had to go to a table, and read a book: when it was the finest spectacle I ever beheld, to see his body bending over the volume, like a boot-jack, and his sentimental eyes glaring obstinately into the pit. He was prodigiously good, in bed, with an immense collar to his shirt, and his little hands outside the coverlet. So was Dr. Antommarchi, represented by a Puppet with long lank hair, like Mawworm’s, who, in consequence of some derangement of his wires, hovered about the couch like a vulture, and gave medical opinions in the air. He was almost as good as Low, though the latter was great at all times — a decided brute and villain, beyond all possibility of mistake. Low was especially fine at the last, when, hearing the doctor and the valet say, “The Emperor is dead!” he pulled out his watch, and wound up the piece (not the watch) by exclaiming, with characteristic brutality, “Ha! ha! Eleven minutes to six! The General dead! and the spy hanged!” This brought the curtain down, triumphantly.
Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. Pictures from Italy, published in 1846, was written after a trip Dickens took through France and Italy in 1844. He saw the marionette theatre in Genoa.
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