Three Years in Europe

Source: W[illiam] Wells Brown, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (London/Edinburgh: Charles Gilpin/Oliver and Boyd, 1852)

Text: As we were returning to our lodgings, we saw in Exeter Street, Strand, one of those exhibitions that can be seen in almost any of the streets in the suburbs of the Metropolis, but which is something of a novelty to those from the other side of the Atlantic. This was an exhibition of “Punch and Judy.” Everything was in full operation when we reached the spot. A puppet appeared eight or ten inches from the waist upwards, with an enormous face, huge nose, mouth widely grinning, projecting chin, cheeks covered with grog blossoms, a large protuberance on his back, another on his chest; yet with these deformities he appeared uncommonly happy. This was Mr. Punch. He held in his right hand a tremendous bludgeon, with which he amused himself by rapping on the head every one who came within his reach. This exhibition seems very absurd, yet not less than one hundred were present—children, boys, old men, and even gentlemen and ladies, were standing by, and occasionally greeting the performer with the smile of approbation. Mr. Punch, however, was not to have it all his own way, for another and better sort of Punch-like exhibition appeared a few yards off, that took away Mr. Punch’s audience, to the great dissatisfaction of that gentleman. This was an exhibition called the Fantoccini, and far superior to any of the street performances which I have yet seen. The curtain rose and displayed a beautiful theatre in miniature, and most gorgeously painted. The organ which accompanied it struck up a hornpipe, and a sailor, dressed in his blue jacket, made his appearance and commenced keeping time with the utmost correctness. This figure was not so long as Mr. Punch, but much better looking. At the close of the hornpipe the little sailor made a bow, and tripped off, apparently conscious of having deserved the undivided applause of the bystanders. The curtain dropped; but in two or three minutes it was again up, and a rope was discovered, extended on two cross pieces, for dancing upon. The tune was changed to an air, in which the time was marked, a graceful figure appeared, jumped upon the rope with its balance pole, and displayed all the manoeuvres of an expert performer on the tight rope. Many who would turn away in disgust from Mr. Punch, will stand for hours and look at the performances of the Fantoccini. If people, like the Vicar of Wakefield, will sometimes “allow themselves to be happy,” they can hardly fail to have a hearty laugh at the drolleries of the Fantoccini. There may be degrees of absurdity in the manner of wasting our time, but there is an evident affectation in decrying these humble and innocent exhibitions, by those who will sit till two or three in the morning to witness a pantomime at a theatre-royal.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. Fantoccini are marionettes, puppets controlled by wires or string, associated with Italy.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

American in Italy

Source: Herbert Kubly, American in Italy (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955), pp. 114-115

Text: Sicily had made me a puppet fancier. I wanted to visit a Neapolitan puppet theater, known as the Olympia. At the consulate I had been urged not to go. The theater was in a northwest corner of the old central section, a crowded and violent part of Naples said to be hostile to outsiders. “Americans are robbed and beaten,” an official warned. “The police had to rescue four American sailors from a mob last week.”

I found an American journalist to make the expedition with me. We climbed narrow crowded streets that rise from the heart of the town. It was an ordinary midweek night, but the streets were noisy and gay as a saint’s feast. Neon light illuminated holy statues, and the smell of roasting chestnuts was in the air. Young women sold American cigarettes, not in packs, but singly, neatly laid out with American contraceptives, also sold singly. At a wineshop we drank a tumbler of extremely potent dark thick stuff. Many persons greeted us. “It’s all in our psychology,” the journalist explained. “If you reflect a feeling of confidence, don’t appear nervous, and never get angry, you avoid trouble. It’s only when you show fear, nervousness, or temperament that difficulties arise.”

We moved deeper into the human jungle. Jagged walls of bombed and deserted buildings loomed up around us. On a bombed side street we found the Olympia. Tickets cost forty lire, about seven cents. It was a new cement structure, clean, whitewashed, and well illuminated; quite different from the dank smelly caves of the Palermo puppeteers. There were about one hundred and fifty chairs and all of them were occupied. Unlike Sicily, there were several shawled women in the audience. The stage was small, and the puppets were smaller than the brass and tin Sicilian warriors. A piano, violin, and horn played Neapolitan folk tunes. Like a movie house, the show, which began at five o’clock, was repeated until midnight. The melodrama upon which we entered ran the gamut from banditry, murder (by stabbing and shooting), and rape to kidnapings. This wide variety of carnage seemed to please the audience greatly. The wicked villain leered at the virtuous lady wearing a tiara and furs and demanded, “Be my mistress or be destroyed!” The virtuous lady screamed, but her husband did not hear her; she chose death and was immediately stabbed. “A scandal! A scandal!” were her dying words. The villain stole the dead woman’s baby and took it to a cabin in the forest kept by a Shakespearean buffoon in pointed boots and a belled cap. The buffoon burned the villain in a furnace and reared the kidnaped child in the forest in the manner of A Winter’s Tale. Twenty years and six scenes later, the child, full grown, was returned to his real father.

In an intermission boys hawked soft drinks, peanuts, and sweets, and members of the audience unpacked lunches from newspapers. The theater became pungent with garlic. The next part of the performance was a variety show, a burlesque with triple-jointed dancers, pumpkin-bosomed female puppets singing ribald songs, sailors paddling little boats across the stage, and a patriarchal fisherman in a candy-striped costume involved in a salty intrigue with some mermaids. I understood very little of the Neapolitan dialect, but the toy performers were wondrously agile and it was enough to watch. The dialogue was peppered with American idioms, G.I. contributions to the patois of Naples. Liberal use of Anglo-Saxon vulgarisms sent the audience into roars. Apparently we had been spotted behind stage as Americans, and the four-letter words were meant as a friendly gesture to us.

Comments: Herbert Kubly (1915-1996) was an American travel writer and playwright.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pictures from Italy

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.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 4 September 1668

Production: Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, Bartholomew Fair, London, 4 September 1668

Text: Up, and met at the Office all the morning; and at noon my wife, and Deb., and Mercer, and W. Hewer and I to the Fair, and there, at the old house, did eat a pig, and was pretty merry, but saw no sights, my wife having a mind to see the play “Bartholomew-Fayre,” with puppets. Which we did, and it is an excellent play; the more I see it, the more I love the wit of it; only the business of abusing the Puritans begins to grow stale, and of no use, they being the people that, at last, will be found the wisest.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. At this period, the Bartholomew Fair (one of London’s summer Charter Fairs) began on 24 August and lasted for two weeks. Pepys’ diary records seeing Ben Jonson‘s 1614 eponymous play seven times between 1661 and 1669.

Links: http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1668/09/04/