Tragedies

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

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. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet, seeing the Ghost in his mother’s chamber, from Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s works (1709), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Colley Cibber (ed. Robert W. Lowe), An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, written by himself (London: John C. Nimmo, 1889 [orig. pub. 1740), vol. 1, pp. 99-105

Text: Betterton was an Actor, as Shakespear was an Author, both without Competitors! form’d for the mutual Assistance and Illustration of each others Genius! How Shakespear wrote, all Men who have a Taste for Nature may read and know — but with what higher Rapture would he still be read could they conceive how Betterton playd him! Then might they know the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write! Pity it is that the momentary Beauties flowing from an harmonious Elocution cannot, like those of Poetry, be their own Record! That the animated Graces of the Player can live no longer than the instant Breath and Motion that presents them, or at best can but faintly glimmer through the Memory or imperfect Attestation of a few surviving Spectators. Could how Betterton spoke be as easily known as what he spoke, then might you see the Muse of Shakespear in her Triumph, with all her Beauties in their best Array rising into real Life and charming her Beholders. But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of Description, how shall I shew you Betterton? Should I therefore tell you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Mackbeths, and Brutus‘s whom you may have seen since his Time, have fallen far short of him; this still would give you no Idea of his particular Excellence. Let us see then what a particular Comparison may do! whether that may yet draw him nearer to you?

You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first Appearance of his Father’s Spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining Vociferation requisite to express Rage and Fury, and the House has thunder’d with Applause; tho’ the mis-guided Actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a Passion into Rags – I am the more bold to offer you this particular Instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him to see this Scene acted, made the same Observation, asking me, with some Surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a Passion with the Ghost, which, tho’ it might have astonish’d, it had not provok’d him? for you may observe that in this beautiful Speech the Passion never rises beyond an almost breathless Astonishment, or an Impatience, limited by filial Reverence, to enquire into the suspected Wrongs that may have rais’d him from his peaceful Tomb! and a Desire to know what a Spirit so seemingly distrest might wish or enjoin a sorrowful Son to execute towards his future Quiet in the Grave? This was the Light into which Betterton threw this Scene; which he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly to a solemn, trembling Voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator as to himself! and in the descriptive Part of the natural Emotions which the ghastly Vision gave him, the boldness of his Expostulation was still govern’d by Decency, manly, but not braving; his Voice never rising into that seeming Outrage or wild Defiance of what he naturally rever’d. But alas! to preserve this medium, between mouthing and meaning too little, to keep the Attention more pleasingly awake by a temper’d Spirit than by meer Vehemence of Voice, is of all the Master-strokes of an Actor the most difficult to reach. In this none yet have equall’d Betterton. But I am unwilling to shew his Superiority only by recounting the Errors of those who now cannot answer to them, let their farther Failings therefore be forgotten! or rather, shall I in some measure excuse them? For I am not yet sure that they might not be as much owing to the false Judgment of the Spectator as the Actor. While the Million are so apt to be transported when the Drum of their Ear is so roundly rattled; while they take the Life of Elocution to lie in the Strength of the Lungs, it is no wonder the Actor, whose end is Applause, should be also tempted at this easy rate to excite it. Shall I go a little farther? and allow that this Extreme is more pardonable than its opposite Error? I mean that dangerous Affectation of the Monotone, or solemn Sameness of Pronounciation, which, to my Ear, is insupportable; for of all Faults that so frequently pass upon the Vulgar, that of Flatness will have the fewest Admirers. That this is an Error of ancient standing seems evident by what Hamlet says, in his Instructions to the Players, viz.

Be not too tame, neither, &c.

The Actor, doubtless, is as strongly ty’d down to the Rules of Horace as the Writer.

Si vis me flere, dolendum est
Primum ipsi tibi –

He that feels not himself the Passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping Audience: But this never was the Fault of Betterton; and it has often amaz’d me to see those who soon came after him throw out, in some Parts of a Character, a just and graceful Spirit which Betterton himself could not but have applauded. And yet in the equally shining Passages of the same Character have heavily dragg’d the Sentiment along like a dead Weight, with a long-ton’d Voice and absent Eye, as if they had fairly forgot what they were about: If you have never made this Observation, I am contented you should not know where to apply it.

A farther Excellence in Betterton was, that he could vary his Spirit to the different Characters he acted. Those wild impatient Starts, that fierce and flashing Fire, which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled Temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur): when the Betterton Brutus was provok’d in his Dispute with Cassius, his Spirit flew only to his Eye; his steady Look alone supply’d that Terror which he disdain’d an Intemperance in his Voice should rise to. Thus, with a settled Dignity of Contempt, like an unheeding Rock he repelled upon himself the Foam of Cassius. Perhaps the very Words of Shakespear will better let you into my Meaning:

Must I give way and room to your rash Choler?
Shall I be frighted when a Madman stares?

And a little after,

There is no Terror, Cassius, in your Looks! &c.

Not but in some part of this Scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his Temper is not under this Suppression, but opens into that Warmth which becomes a Man of Virtue; yet this is that Hasty Spark of Anger which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse.

But with whatever strength of Nature we see the Poet shew at once the Philosopher and the Heroe, yet the Image of the Actor’s Excellence will be still imperfect to you unless Language could put Colours in our Words to paint the Voice with.

Et, si vis similem pijigere, pinge sonum, is enjoyning an impossibility. The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his Portraits of great Persons seem to think; a Shakespear goes farther yet, and tells you what his Pictures thought; a Betterton steps beyond ’em both, and calls them from the Grave to breathe and be themselves again in Feature, Speech, and Motion. When the skilful Actor shews you all these Powers at once united, and gratifies at once your Eye, your Ear, your Understanding: To conceive the Pleasure rising from such Harmony, you must have been present at it! ’tis not to be told you!

Comments: Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an English actor-manager, playwright and poet laureate, whose engaging memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber is one of the best accounts we have of the theatre of his times. He began his acting career in Thomas Betterton‘s company in 1690, and rose in the profession to become manager of Drury Lane Theatre in 1710. Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710) was the leading English male actor of his time, who frequently played Shakespearean roles (generally in adaptations by writers of the period, including Betterton himself). Going by the rough chronology of Cibber’s memoir, he is referring to performances of Betterton in Hamlet in the 1690s.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 8 March 1664

Production: Pierre Corneille, Héraclius, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, 8 March 1664

Text: Up with some little discontent with my wife upon her saying that she had got and used some puppy-dog water, being put upon it by a desire of my aunt Wight to get some for her, who hath a mind, unknown to her husband, to get some for her ugly face. I to the office, where we sat all the morning, doing not much business through the multitude of counsellors, one hindering another. It was Mr. Coventry’s own saying to me in his coach going to the ‘Change, but I wonder that he did give me no thanks for my letter last night, but I believe he did only forget it. Thence home, whither Luellin came and dined with me, but we made no long stay at dinner; for “Heraclius” being acted, which my wife and I have a mighty mind to see, we do resolve, though not exactly agreeing with the letter of my vowe, yet altogether with the sense, to see another this month, by going hither instead of that at Court, there having been none conveniently since I made my vowe for us to see there, nor like to be this Lent, and besides we did walk home on purpose to make this going as cheap as that would have been, to have seen one at Court, and my conscience knows that it is only the saving of money and the time also that I intend by my oaths, and this has cost no more of either, so that my conscience before God do after good consultation and resolution of paying my forfeit, did my conscience accuse me of breaking my vowe, I do not find myself in the least apprehensive that I have done any violence to my oaths. The play hath one very good passage well managed in it, about two persons pretending, and yet denying themselves, to be son to the tyrant Phocas, and yet heire of Mauritius to the crowne. The garments like Romans very well. The little girle is come to act very prettily, and spoke the epilogue most admirably. But at the beginning, at the drawing up of the curtaine, there was the finest scene of the Emperor and his people about him, standing in their fixed and different pastures in their Roman habitts, above all that ever I yet saw at any of the theatres. Walked home, calling to see my brother Tom, who is in bed, and I doubt very ill of a consumption. To the office awhile, and so home to supper and to bed.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. Pepys and his wife Elizabeth saw Pierre Corneille‘s 1647 French tragedy Héraclius, on the Byzantine emperor of that name, in a version by an unknown English translator, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in all probability performed by the Duke’s Company. The cast is not known. Pepys had made a Lenten vow to himself to limit his theatregoing, which he got round by persuading himself that a play at a different location to one seen at court did not count.

Links: http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1664/03/08

Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Drury Lane Theatre in 1812, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 406-407

Production: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Remorse, Drury Lane, London, 23 January 1813

Text: January 23rd. — In the evening at Drury Lane, to see the first performance of Coleridge’s tragedy, “Remorse.”* I sat with Amyot, the Hamonds, Godwins, &c. My interest for the play was greater than in the play, and my anxiety for its success took from me the feeling of a mere spectator. I have no hesitation in saying that its poetical is far greater than its dramatic merit, that it owes its success rather to its faults than to its beauties, and that it will have for its less meritorious qualities applause which is really due to its excellences. Coleridge’s great fault is that he indulges before the public in those metaphysical and philosophical speculations which are becoming only in solitude or with select minds. His two principal characters are philosophers of Coleridge’s own school; the one a sentimental moralist, the other a sophisticated villain — both are dreamers. Two experiments made by Alvez on his return, the one on his mistress by relating a dream, and the other when he tries to kindle remorse in the breast of Ordonio, are too fine-spun to be intelligible. However, in spite of these faults, of the improbability of the action, of the clumsy contrivance with the picture, and the too ornate and poetic diction throughout, the tragedy was received with great and almost unmixed applause, and was announced for repetition without any opposition.

* Coleridge had complained to me of the way in which Sheridan spoke in company of his tragedy. He told me that Sheridan had said that in the original copy there was in the famous cave scene this line, —

“Drip! Drip! Drip! There’s nothing here but dripping.”

However, there was every disposition to do justice to it on the stage, nor were the public unfavourably disposed towards it.

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. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (with whom Robinson was well acquainted) wrote a blank verse tragedy set in 16th-century Moorish Granada, entitled Osorio, in 1797. It was rejected by Drury Lane Theatre, then managed by Richard Sheridan, and went unperformed. Coleridge revised the play, and under the new title of Remorse it was put on at Drury Lane in 1813 where it was a success, enjoying twenty performances between January and May.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Arms and the Woman

Source: Boris Uxkull, extract from diary entry for 1-25 March 1814 [Julian calendar], reproduced in Detlev von Uexküll (trans. Joel Carmichael), Arms and the Woman: The Diaries of Baron Boris Uxkull 1812-1819 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966), p. 183

Production: Jean Racine, Britannicus, Théâtre-Français, Paris, April 1814

Text: I love promenading along the boulevards studying the people passing by beneath the trees, or along the Champs-Elysées, where you can watch all the grand and beautiful people of Paris passing by in carriages, on horseback, or on foot, or else in the magnificent Jardin des Plantes, where so many objects of natural history have been brought together. Evenings are devoted to the various shows or theatres of Paris. The opera attracts me especially, mostly because of its orchestra. Its repertoire is unique. The vaudeville is highly diverting, just as the national theatre is interesting in its choice of classical plays. The other day I attended a performance of Racine’s Britannicus. The monarchs were there in the grand loge opposite. In the midst of a scene that echoed present-day circumstances the audience shouted and divided into two sides, of which one – the one that was for the restoration and the Bourbons – was absolutely determined to knock down the eagle floating above the stage! The racket was horrible, but the whites prevailed over the reds and managed to climb up on an improvised ladder leaned against the balustrade and to knock down the emblem of the defeated dynasty to cries of “Down with the hen!” “Down with the griffin!” “Down with the scoundrel!” It was a veritable bedlam, an infernal bellowing that stunned the crowned heads, scarcely accustomed to such scenes in their own capitals. It took a long time for order to be restored; the play lasted until midnight. Zinsky, the quartermaster of our regiment, found me a good lodging with a legal expert by the name of Rousseau at No. 7 Rue du Jardin; he has a charming family and is smothering me with friendliness. I’m very well off here!

Comments: Baron Boris Uxkull (1793-1870) was an Estonian aristocrat attached to the Russian army during the Napoleon campaign. He was among the Allied Armies (Russia, Austria, Prussia) that entered Paris in 1814. His diaries are a combination of a record of the Napoleonic war, culminating in the march on Paris, and later amorous adventures. He saw Jean Racine‘s 1669 tragedy Britannicus performed at the Théâtre-Français (the Comédie-Française). Uxkull’s diaries give dates using the Julian (Russian) calendar; following the the Gregorian (Western) calendar, the Allies entered Paris on 31 March, so Uxkull saw the performance in early April 1814. I’ve not been able to confirm wich monarchs were in attendance, but those who were part of the Allied Armies’ march into Paris were Tsar Alexander of Russia, Frederick William III, King of Prussia, and Prince Schwarzenberg of Austria.

The Distressed Mother

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘The Distressed Mother’, Examiner, 22 September 1816 pp. 9-10, reproduced in A View of the English Stage, or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 108-110

Production: Ambrosse Philips, The Distrest Mother, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 16 or 20 September 1816

Text: A Mr. Macready appeared at Covent Garden Theatre on Monday and Friday, in the character of Orestes in the Distressed Mother, a bad play for the display of his powers, in which, however, he succeeded in making a decidedly favourable impression upon the audience. His voice is powerful in the highest degree, and at the same time possesses great harmony and modulation. His face is not equally calculated for the stage. He declaims better than anybody we have lately heard. He is accused of being violent, and of wanting pathos. Neither of these objections is true. His manner of delivering the first speeches in this play was admirable, and the want of increasing interest afterwards was the fault of the author rather than the actor. The fine suppressed tone in which he assented to Pyrrhus’s command to convey the message to Hermione was a test of his variety of power, and brought down repeated acclamations from the house. We do not lay much stress on his mad scene, though that was very good in its kind, for mad scenes do not occur very often, and, when they do, had in general better be omitted. We have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Mr. Macready is by far the best tragic actor that has come out in our remembrance, with the exception of Mr. Kean. We, however, heartily wish him well out of this character of Orestes. It is a kind of forlorn hope in tragedy. There is nothing to be made of it on the English stage beyond experiment. It is a trial, not a triumph. These French plays puzzle an English audience exceedingly. They cannot attend to the actor, for the difficulty they have in understanding the author. We think it wrong in any actor of great merit (which we hold Mr. Macready to be) to come out in an ambiguous character, to salve his reputation. An actor is like a man who throws himself from the top of a steeple by a rope. He should choose the highest steeple he can find, that, if he does not succeed in coming safe to the ground, he may break his neck at once, and so put himself and the spectators out of farther pain.

Ambrose Phillips’s Distressed Mother is a very good translation from Racine’s Andromache. It is an alternation of topics, of pros and cons, on the casuistry of domestic and state affairs, and produced a great effect of ennui on the audience. When you hear one of the speeches in these rhetorical tragedies, you know as well what will be the answer to it, as when you see the tide coming up the river – you know that it will return again. The other actors filled their parts with successful mediocrity.

We highly disapprove of the dresses worn on this occasion, and supposed to be the exact Greek costume. We do not know that the Greek heroes were dressed like women, or wore their long hair straight down their backs. Or even supposing that they did, this is not generally known or understood by the audience; and though the preservation of the ancient costume is a good thing, it is of more importance not to shock our present prejudices. The managers of Covent Garden are not the Society of Antiquaries. The attention to costume is only necessary to preserve probability; in the present instance, it could only violate it, because there is nothing to lead the public opinion to expect such an exhibition. We know how the Turks are dressed, from seeing them in the streets; we know the costume of the Greek statues, from seeing casts in the shop windows; we know that savages go naked, from reading voyages and travels; but we do not know that the Grecian chiefs at the Siege of Troy were dressed as Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Abbott, and Mr. Macready were the other evening in the Distressed Mother. It is a discovery of the managers, and they should have kept their secret to themselves. The epithet in Homer, applied to the Grecian warriors, kάρη kομόωντες, is not any proof. It signifies, not long-haired, but literally bushy-headed, which would come nearer to the common Brutus head than this long dangling slip of hair. The oldest and most authentic models we have are the Elgin Marbles, and it is certain the Theseus is a crop. One would think this standard might satisfy the Committee of Managers in point of classical antiquity. But no such thing. They are much deeper in Greek costume and the history of the fabulous ages, than those old-fashioned fellows, the Sculptors who lived in the time of Pericles. But we have said quite enough on this point.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. William Macready (1793-1873) made his debut on the London stage on 16 September 1816 at Covent Garden in Ambrose PhilipsThe Distrest Mother, a translation of Jean Racine‘s Andromaque. Macready played Orestes, alongside Charles Kemble and William Abbot.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

A Persian at the Court of King George

Source: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan (ed./trans. Margaret Morris Cloake), A Persian at the Court of King George: The Journal of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10 (London : Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), p. 92

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Nahum Tate), King Lear and Harlequin Pedlar; or, The Haunted Well, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 12 January 1810

Text: Friday, 12 January [1810]

When my friends gathered at the house, Sir Gore Ouseley told me that tonight they planned to take me to a theatre called Covent Garden. Some time ago the theatre was destroyed by fire; it has been rebuilt with the help of a donation of 200,000 tomans from the King.

And so we went there. On either side of the lofty stage there are galleries with painted ceilings. Although somewhat smaller than the Opera, the decoration is more elaborate. Musicians banished sorrow from our hearts with their songs. It seemed to me strange that the audience reacted to some of the tunes with such boisterous applause that it could be heard by the Cherubim in heaven, but to others they appeared totally deaf.

The manager of the theatre, Mr Kemble, acted the part of a King of Britain Who divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, leaving the third without a share. In the end, however, the first two daughters show themselves ungrateful to their father, and the disinherited but dutiful daughter escapes from the bondage of her wicked sisters with the help of a general’s son – a marquis – who is in love with her. When she succeeds to the throne, she accepts him as her husband.

Next, several multi-coloured curtains were lowered, and from behind these curtains – in the manner of Iranian acrobats – appeared the fantastic figures of divs and peris, of birds and beasts. No one watching their antics could possibly have retained his composure. Grimaldi, a famous clown, performed an act which I shall never forget: he would leap from a high Window and just as easily leap back up again, returning each time as a different character and causing the noble audience to laugh uncontrollably.

Walking around the theatre, my companions and I saw beautiful ladies, beautifully dressed, casting flirtatious glances from their boxes. Then We left the theatre by the King’s door and came home.

Comments: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, or Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi (1776-1845) was an Iranian ambassador who headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1809-1810. The version of King Lear that he saw, with John Philip Kemble playing Lear, was the adaptation by Nahum Tate with happy ending. The concluding harlequinade was Harlequin Pedlar; or, The Haunted Well, featuring the highly popular comic performer Joseph Grimaldi.

Mrs. Siddons

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘Mrs. Siddons’, Examiner, 16 June 1816, reproduced in A View of the English Stage, or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 103-106

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Covent Garden, London, 14 June 1816

Text: Players should be immortal, if their own wishes or ours could make them so; but they are not. They not only die like other people, but like other people they cease to be young, and are no longer themselves, even while living. Their health, strength, beauty, voice, fails them; nor can they, without these advantages, perform the same feats, or command the same applause that they did when possessed of them. It is the common lot: players are only not exempt from it. Mrs. Siddons retired once from the stage: why should she return to it again? She cannot retire from it twice with dignity; and yet it is to be wished that she should do all things with dignity. Any loss of reputation to her, is a loss to the world. Has she not had enough of glory? The homage she has received is greater than that which is paid to queens. The enthusiasm she excited had something idolatrous about it; she was regarded less with admiration than with wonder, as if a being of a superior order had dropped from another sphere, to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. She raised tragedy to the skies, or brought it down from thence. It was something above nature. We can conceive of nothing grander. She embodied to our imagination the fables of mythology, of the heroic and deified mortals of elder time. She was not less than a goddess, or than a prophetess inspired by the gods. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was Tragedy personified. She was the stateliest ornament of the public mind. She was not only the idol of the people, she not only hushed the tumultuous shouts of the pit in breathless expectation, and quenched the blaze of surrounding beauty in silent tears, but to the retired and lonely student, through long years of solitude, her face has shone as if an eye had appeared from heaven; her name has been as if a voice had opened the chambers of the human heart, or as if a trumpet had awakened the sleeping and the dead. To have seen Mrs. Siddons was an event in everyone’s life; and does she think we have forgot her? Or would she remind us of herself by showing us what she was not? Or is she to continue on the stage to the very last, till all her grace and all her grandeur gone, shall leave behind them only a melancholy blank? Or is she merely to be played off as “the baby of a girl” for a few nights?—” Rather than so,” come, Genius of Gil Bias, thou that didst inspire him in an evil hour to perform his promise to the Archbishop of Grenada, “and champion us to the utterance” of what we think on this occasion.

It is said that the Princess Charlotte has expressed a desire to see Mrs. Siddons in her best parts, and this, it is said, is a thing highly desirable. We do not know that the Princess has expressed any such wish, and we shall suppose that she has not, because we do not think it altogether a reasonable one. If the Princess Charlotte had expressed a wish to see Mr. Garrick, this would have been a thing highly desirable, but it would have been impossible; or if she had desired to see Mrs. Siddons in her best days, it would have been equally so; and yet, without this, we do not think it desirable that she should see her at all. It is said to be desirable that a princess should have a taste for the Fine Arts, and that this is best promoted by seeing the highest models of perfection. But it is of the first importance for princes to acquire a taste for what is reasonable and the second thing which it is desirable they should acquire is a deference to public opinion: and we think neither of these objects likely to be promoted in the way proposed. If it was reasonable that Mrs. Siddons should retire from the stage three years ago, certainly those reasons have not diminished since, nor do we think Mrs. Siddons would consult what is due to her powers or her fame, in commencing a new career. If it is only intended that she should act a few nights in the presence of a particular person, this might be done as well in private. To all other applications she should answer, “Leave me to my repose.”

Mrs. Siddons always spoke as slow as she ought: she now speaks slower than she did. “The line, too, labours, and the words move slow.” The machinery of the voice seems too ponderous for the power that wields it. There is too long a pause between each sentence, and between each word in each sentence. There is too much preparation. The stage waits for her. In the sleeping scene, she produced a different impression from what we expected. It was more laboured and less natural. In coming on formerly, her eyes were open, but the sense was shut. She was like a person bewildered, and unconscious of what she did. She moved her lips involuntarily; all her gestures were involuntary and mechanical. At present she acts the part more with a view to effect. She repeats the action when she says, “I tell you he cannot rise from his grave,” with both hands sawing the air in the style of parliamentary oratory, the worst of all others. There was none of this weight or energy in the way she did the scene the first time we saw her, twenty years ago. She glided on and off the stage almost like an apparition. In the close of the banquet scene, Mrs. Siddons condescended to an imitation which we were sorry for. She said, “Go, go,” in the hurried familiar tone of common life, in the manner of Mr. Kean, and without any of that sustained and graceful spirit of conciliation towards her guests, which used to characterise her mode of doing it. Lastly, if Mrs. Siddons has to leave the stage again, Mr. Horace Twiss will write another farewell address for her; if she continues on it, we shall have to criticise her performances. We know which of these two evils we shall think the greatest.

Too much praise cannot be given to Mr. Kemble’s performance of Macbeth. He was “himself again,” and more than himself. His action was decided, his voice audible. His tones had occasionally indeed a learned quaintness, like the colouring of Poussin; but the effect of the whole was fine. His action in delivering the speech, “To-morrow and to-morrow,” was particularly striking and expressive, as if he had stumbled by an accident on fate, and was baffled by the impenetrable obscurity of the future. In that prodigious prosing paper, the Times, which seems to be written as well as printed by a steam-engine, Mr. Kemble is compared to the ruin of a magnificent temple, in which the divinity still resides. This is not the case. The temple is unimpaired; but the divinity is sometimes from home.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) had retired from the stage in 1812, but made some special apperances thereafter to 1819, including playing Lady Macbeth opposite her brother John Philip Kemble at Covent Garden.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Hamlet Once More

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘Hamlet Once More’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 271-275, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, p. 4

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Princess’s Theatre, London, October 1884

Text: At the very moment when Mr. Wilson Barrett is bringing out Hamlet at the Princess’s, there comes into my hands Shakspeare and Montaigne, an Endeavour to explain the Tendency of ‘Hamlet’ from Allusions in Contemporary Works, by Mr. Jacob Feis, an author not known to me. Mr. Feis seeks to establish that Shakspeare [sic] in Hamlet identifies Montaigne’s philosophy with madness, branding it as a pernicious one, as contrary to the intellectual conquests his own English nation has made when breaking with the Romanist dogma. ‘Shakspeare,’ says Mr. Feis, ‘wished to warn his contemporaries that the attempt of reconciling two opposite circles of ideas – namely, on the one hand the doctrine that we are to be guided by the laws of nature, and on the other the yielding ourselves up to superstitious dogmas which declare human nature to be sinful, must inevitably produce deeds of madness.’

Mr. Feis’s name has a German look, and the first instinct of the ‘genuine British narrowness’ will be to say that here is another German critic who has discovered a mare’s nest. ‘Hamlet dies wounded and poisoned, as if Shakspeare had intended expressing his abhorrence of so vacillating a character, who places the treacherous excesses of passion above the power of that human reason in whose free service alone Greeks and Romans did their most exalted deeds of virtue.’

Shakspeare is ‘the great humanist,’ in sympathy with the clear unwarped reason of ‘a living Horace or Horatio,’ an Horatio intrepid as the author of ‘non vultus instantis tyranni.’ This is fantastic. Far from abhorring Hamlet, Shakspeare was probably in considerable sympathy with him: nor is he likely to have thought either that salvation for mankind was to be had from the Odes of Horace.

Mr. Feis is too entire, too absolute. Nevertheless his book is of real interest and value. He has proved the preoccupation of Shakspeare’s mind when he made Hamlet with Montaigne’s Essays. John Sterling had inferred it, but Mr. Feis has established it. He shows how passage after passage in the second quarto of Hamlet, published in 1604, has been altered and expanded in correspondence with things in the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Florio’s, published in 1603.

The Essays had already passed through many editions in French, and were known to Shakspeare in that language. Their publication in English was an event in the brilliant and intellectual London world, then keenly interested in the playhouses; and Shakspeare, in revising his Hamlet in 1604, gives proof of the actual occupation of his patrons with the Englished Montaigne, and confirms, too, the fact of his own occupation with the Essays previously.

For me the interest of this discovery does not lie in its showing that Shakspeare thought Montaigne a dangerous author, and meant to give in Hamlet a shocking example of what Montaigne’s teaching led to. It lies in its explaining how it comes about that Hamlet, in spite of the prodigious mental and poetic power shown in it, is really so tantalising and ineffective a play. To the common public Hamlet is a famous piece by a famous poet, with crime, a ghost, battle, and carnage; and that is sufficient. To the youthful enthusiast Hamlet is a piece handling the mystery of the universe, and having throughout cadences, phrases, and words full of divinest Shakspearian magic; and that, too, is sufficient. To the pedant, finally, Hamlet is an occasion for airing his psychology; and what does pedant require more? But to the spectator who loves true and powerful drama, and can judge whether he gets it or not, Hamlet is a piece which opens, indeed, simply and admirably, and then: ‘The rest is puzzle’!

The reason is, apparently, that Shakspeare conceived this play with his mind running on Montaigne, and placed its action and its hero in Montaigne’s atmosphere and world. What is that world? It is the world of man viewed as a being ondoyant et divers, balancing and indeterminate, the plaything of cross motives and shifting impulses, swayed by a thousand subtle influences, physiological and pathological. Certainly the action and hero of the original Hamlet story are not such as to compel the poet to place them in this world and no other, but they admit of being placed there, Shakspeare resolved to place them there, and they lent themselves to his resolve. The resolve once taken to place the action in this world of problem, the problem became brightened by all the force of Shakspeare’s faculties, of Shakspeare’s subtlety. Hamlet thus comes at last to be not a drama followed with perfect comprehension and profoundest emotion, which is the ideal for tragedy, but a problem soliciting interpretation and solution.

It will never, therefore, be a piece to be seen with pure satisfaction by those who will not deceive themselves. But such is its power and such is its fame that it will always continue to be acted, and we shall all of us continue to go and see it. Mr. Wilson Barrett has put it effectively and finely on the stage. In general the critics have marked his merits with perfect justice. He is successful with his King and Queen. The King in Hamlet is too often a blatant horror, and his Queen is to match. Mr. Willard and Miss Leighton are a King and Queen whom one sees and hears with pleasure. Ophelia, too what suffering have Ophelias caused us! And nothing can make this part advantageous to an actress or enjoyable for the spectator. I confess, therefore, that I trembled at each of Miss Eastlake’s entrances; but the impression finally left, by the madness scene more especially, was one of approval and respect. Mr. Wilson Barrett himself, as Hamlet, is fresh, natural, young, prepossessing, animated, coherent; the piece moves. All Hamlets whom I have seen dissatisfy us in something. Macready wanted person, Charles Kean mind, Fechter English; Mr. Wilson Barrett wants elocution. No ingenuity will ever enable us to follow the drama of Hamlet as we follow the first part of Faust, but we may be made to feel the noble poetry.

Perhaps John Kemble, in spite of his limitations, was the best Hamlet after all. But John Kemble is beyond reach of the memory of even

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

October 23, 1884.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. The Princess’s Theatre production of Hamlet featured Wilson Barrett as Hamlet, Edward Willard (Claudius), Margaret Leighton (Gertrude) and Mary Eastlake (Ophelia).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive