Applause

An Evening at Collins’s

Source: James Agate, ‘An Evening at Collins’s’, in Alarums and Excursions (London: G. Richards, 1922), pp. 153-164

Text:

Vulgarity is an implicit element of the true music-hall. . . . Out of the vulgarity of the people did the music-hall arise, nor will anyone be so foolish as to contend that, by tampering with its foundations, we shall go one step towards refining the people.

Max Beerbohm.

That delicate and penetrative writer, Dixon Scott, imagines in one of his playful essays the more than cosmopolitan Mr Walkley for the nonce desorienté. The Five Towns it is which bring to a disconcerting standstill this “picked man of countries.” “Where are they?” he asks wearily and a trifle shamefacedly, after the manner of a schoolboy stumped for the whereabouts of Carthage. I, in my turn, no “student of the drama” since there is little on the English stage left to study save Mr Oscar Asche’s sham orientalism and Mr Hichens’s real camels, must confess to a singular ignorance of theatrical activity outside the quarter-mile radius. “Where is Collins’s?” and “Who is Mr George Carney?” would therefore have risen naturally to my lips, and not at all in the judicial manner, pour rire, when a youth, engaged in mending my bicycle, hopelessly confused his tale of the machine’s defects with references to a place called Collins’s, that fellow Carney, and a certain history confided by some colonel to his adjutant. Would have risen to my lips, I say – but here some explanation is necessary.

I have from youth up cherished an extreme dislike for lack of definition in the things that matter, and an equal repugnance for a pedantic accuracy in the things which do not matter at all. I abhor all those befogged conceptions and blurred declarations of faith which are the stock-in-trade of half the philosophers and three-fourths of the clergy. Tell me definitely that Space is curved and I will believe it, though truth wear a German complexion. Deny that Space is curved, and certify the same on the Royal Society’s proper form for denials, and I will consider to which camp I will belong. But let there be no “iffing and affing,” as they say in Lancashire. It annoys me that people can turn the careless side of their intelligence to such fundamental affairs as Time and Space, the nature of matter, the impasse of a self-existent or a created universe, whilst taking the most passionate interest in such trivia as dates and places, the addresses of tradespeople and the hours of trains. I do not ever hope to remember the name or number of the street in which I live, nor have I for years been able to discriminate between the keepers of my lodging- houses. All landladies are one, co-equal, co- eternal and co-incomprehensible. I hate to decide what I shall do on Saturday, to determine whether the air will be fresher at Ramsgate or Margate, Southend or Clacton-on-Sea. I am in complete ignorance of the geography of London, and invariably take what is called a hackney coach from King’s Cross to St Pancras. I have for many years left the choice of place of amusement to the discerning cabby. “Anywhere you like,” say I, “except Chu Chin Chow. Wherever one may be set down, the prime condition of life will be fulfilled — to see yet more of an amusing world and its humanity. Few people have shown a more philosophic appreciation than Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue when they “oozed forth” into the streets. The phrase accurately describes my first attempt to find Collins’s music-hall.

I had always “placed” Collins’s as lying vaguely south of the river, somewhere between the Elephant and the Obelisk, Now the game of inattention to the trivialities of life has its rules, and one of them is that having made your intellectual bed so you must lie on it. You are to have the courage of your lack of mental industry. You have not attended to the lesson; you may not crib the answer. To dine at Princes’ and bid the commissionaire whistle an instructed taxi were outside the code. No; I had placed Collins’s near the Obelisk, and near the Obelisk I must find it, first dining befittingly and then oozing forth afoot. This may not be the place to describe a dinner “at the Obelisk.” Sufficient to say that if the cuts were not prime, the manners of my fellow-guests undoubtedly were. They did their meal the courtesy of being hungry; they ate, but not because it was the polite hour. They made no conversation, because they were not afraid of silence. My neighbour, an itinerant musician — in plain English he played a fiddle in the gutter — was, I judged, a man of uncertain character, but definite education. He forbore to relate his history. I discovered that he spoke French perfectly when, apropos of the oeillades of some poor draggle-tail at a neighbouring table, we fell to discussing the efficacy of the Duchess’s revenge in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s story — a good tale, but sadly lacking the American quality of “uplift.” I let slip, as they say, that I was bound for Collins’s, and my friend took occasion to point out that I was very much out of my course. I thanked him and listened to his indications for the following evening, it being a dispensation of the Inattentivists that you are not bound to reject information thrust upon you. We talked until the hour at which a paternal Government decrees that polite conversation in public places shall cease. And separated. But not before my fellow-artist had warmed sufficiently to me to hint that he was “doing well,” and that he hoped next year to enter his son for Eton.

Islington I found to be perfectly well informed both as to the locality of Collins’s and the reputation of Mr Carney. If not within a stone’s-throw of the Angel, the hall yet contrives to be at so nice a distance that one may transfer oneself from one house of entertainment to the other without, as old Quex has it, the trouble of drawing on one’s gloves. There is nothing of listless, well-bred indifference in a visit to Collins’s; you must be prepared to take the red plush benches by storm if you would be in at North London’s taking to heart of that rarity among comedians, an actor with a comic sense. I like to watch the curtain go up, having first enjoyed my fill of its bewitching advertisements. I like to watch the musicians file in, to see the flute-player put his instrument together, and that honest workman, the double-bass, spit on his hands, as all honest workmen should. I adore the operation of tuning-up, the precision of those little runs and trills executed in as perfect light-heartedness as the golfer’s preliminary swing. The conductor at these places is a captivating personage; he epitomises the glory of suburbia — dinner jacket, “dickey,” and white, ready-made bow. The overture at Collins’s, perfunctory, gladiatorial, had a familiar air about it, although the programme was not helpful. I should hate to think that a piece with which I am familiar can really be The Woodbine Willie Two-Step. Followed turns of which, or of whom, the chief were a juggler striking matches on his skull, a stout lady with a thin voice, prima donna of some undisclosed opera company, and a Versatile Comedy Four having to do with bicycles. At length and at last, Mr George Carney.

The first of his two “song-scenas” is a study of grandeur and decadence, of magnificence on its last legs, dandyism in the gutter, pride surviving its fall; in plain English, a tale of that wreckage of the Embankment which was once a gentleman. He wears a morning coat which, in spite of irremediable tatters, has obviously known the sunshine of Piccadilly, has yet some hang of nobility. The torn trousers still wear their plaid with an air. Enfin, the fellow was at one time gloved and booted. There is something authentic, something inherited, something ghostly about this seedy figure. Trailing clouds of glory does he haunt the Embankment. The ebony cane, the eyeglass with the watered ribbon, the grey topper of the wide and curling brim — all these fond accoutrements of fashion bring back the delightful nineties, so closely are they the presentment, the counterfeit presentment, of the swell of those days. “Bancroft to the life!” we mutter. And our mind goes back to that bygone London of violet nights and softly-jingling hansom cabs, discreet lacquer and harness of cheerful brass—nocturnes, if ever such things were, in black and gold — the London of yellow asters and green carnations; of a long-gloved diseuse, and, in the photographer’s window, a delicious Mrs Patrick Campbell eating something dreadfully expensive off the same plate as Mr George Alexander; of a hard-working Max with one volume of stern achievement and all Time before him; of a Cafe Royal where poets and not yet bookmakers forgathered; of a score of music- halls which were not for the young person. … But I am getting away from Mr Carney.

The matter is not very much above our heads — something about a Count who has “taken the count.” The purest stuff of the music-hall, as a music-hall song should be. “There’s a n’ole ‘ere!” pipes with fierce glee the cherub boot-black, bending over the broken boots and abating the deference to the broken swell no jot of his Trade Union rate of “frippence.” How it hurts, the contempt and raillery of this pitiless infant? Enfant goguenard if ever there was one, a capitalist in his small way, and with all the shopkeeper’s scorn of failure. “There’s a n’ole ere!” he insists, and we are reminded of Kipps’s tempestuous friend, “a nactor-fellow.” “Not a n’ole — an aperture, my dear fellow, an aperture,” corrects the noble client, “the boots were patent, but the patent’s expired.” Here the Count drops his cigar and indulges in unseemly scuffle with the urchin. “No, you don’t,” says the riper smoker, regaining possession, “that’s how I got it.” But the child has yet another arrow. “Landlady says as ‘ow you’ve got to share beds wiv a dustman.” But the shaft fails to wound; clearly our hero is of the Clincham mould to whom social distinctions are as “piffle before the wind.” “Want a pyper?” goads the boy, and his client lays out his last remaining copper. He unfolds the sheets and instinctively his eye runs over the fashionable intelligence. “Know Colonel Br’th’l’pp at all?” he inquires. This one recognises as the delightful touch of the man of the world anxious to put a social inferior at his ease. Something after this manner, one imagines, Royalty. “Doing very well in Russia. Was up at Cambridge with his brother, the elder Br’th’l’pp, don’ cher know.” And so to babble of the day’s gossip to the scornful child at his feet. The courtesy, I submit, of one man of polish to another.

Night falls, the river puts on its jewels, the result of a cunning arrangement of n’oles and n’apertures in the back-cloth, it draws very cold. More pitiful than the accustomed heir of destitution, but with stiff upper lip, our déclassé shivers, draws his rags more closely about him and moves on.

But it is the second song which brings down the house. Here the actor appears as an Army cook, and at Islington we have all been Army cooks in our time. A couple of dixies, the stew in which is discoverable last week’s “Dickey Dirt,” talk of “jippo ” and “the doings ” — all the familiar traffic of the camp rises to the mind’s eye and sets the house in a roar. We are not, we gather, in any theatre of war, but safely at home in halcyon, far-off training days. Almost you can hear the cheerful clatter of the canteen, the thud and rattle of the horse-lines. The wording of the song is in no sense precious.

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?”

There is a chorus, also serving as corps de ballet, and consisting first of the inveterate grumbler who objects to the presence in his coffee of so harmless a beastie as a “drahned mahse “— the accent is a mixture of Devon and Berkshire with a dash of Cockney. Then comes the superior youth of ingratiating, behind-the-counter manner, the proud possessor, we feel sure, of a manicure set in ivory — does he not abstractedly polish his nails with the end of the towel? After him the “old sweat” who will neither die nor fade away, and lastly our rosy boot-black, now the dear brother-in-arms of the immortal Lew and Jakin. This nucleus of an Army has but a single mind: to know what has become of its blinking dinner. Many and various are their ways of putting it, and it appears that they are no more than Messengers or Forerunners of the cohorts pressing on their heels. But the orderly beguiles their impatience.

“What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.”

The orderly is the slipshod, inefficient, imperturbable “bloke” we know so well; with him we are to rise to what Mr Chesterton calls “the dazzling pinnacle of the commonplace.” I am not sure that this is not the best of all this author’s fireworks; it is so stupendous a rocket that the stick has cleared the earth, never to return but to go on whirling around us for evermore. Mr Carney is the embodiment of the commonplace civilian turned warrior. He is the cook who will drop into the stew all manner of inconsidered [sic] trifles: cigarette ash, match ends, articles of personal attire. He is the hero who will be up to all the petty knavery and “lead-swinging” that may be going, who will “work dodges ” with the worst of them, and, on occasion, join with the best in such deeds — he would still call them “dodges” — as shall put terror into the hearts of a ten times outnumbering foe. Of that order of heroic cooks which held Ypres. But it is part and parcel of this actor’s generalship that he will have no truck with heroics. Tell Mr Carney that he raises tears and he will make a mock of you. Or more probably he will continue his song.

“What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears;
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

Have I over-glorified my subject, whose talent is not more remarkably expended than on a dixie and a soldier’s ration of stew? Ah, but was not always one of the great tests for comic acting the power to throw a preternatural interest over the commonest objects of daily life? “What,” say you, pricking your ears at the familiar phrase, “surely at this time of day you are not going to dish up that old stuff about kitchen tables and constellatory importance, joint-stools and Cassiopeia’s chair?” Oh, but I am, and let appositeness be my apology. “So the gusto of Munden antiquates and ennobles what it touches. His pots and his ladles are as grand and primal as the seething-pots and hooks seen in old prophetic vision.” Why should I not elevate, an it please me, Mr Carney’s pot and ladle to the same high category? I do not ask you to see in this actor an image of primeval man lost in wonder of the sun and stars, but I do ask you to believe that a tin of “bully” contemplated by him amounts, or very nearly amounts, to a Platonic idea. Grant at least that he understands a dixie in its quiddity. It may be that in my estimate of this conscientious comedian I have overshot the just mean. Well, granting that my little appraisement is an error, it seems to me to be an error on the right side. I have a comfortable feeling that Islington at least is with me, that I have a solid popular backing. Collins’s pit and stalls, circle and gallery would have borne me out that the actor diffused a glow of sentiment “which made the pulse of a crowded theatre beat like that of one man”; would have probably agreed that he had “come in aid of the pulpit, doing good to the moral heart of a people.”

I do not think that in expanding Islington’s approval I have misread it. Its ecstatic hand-clapping and shouts of “Good ole George! Good ole George!” cannot deceive an ear attuned to shades of applause. The civilian on my left with the wound-stripes on his sleeve is dumb with appreciation. His lips are parted, his breath comes in short gasps, his eyes are fixed on the stage seeing and not seeing, his whole soul in some setting of the past. I am sure he hears once more the clatter of the canteen and the cheerful rattle of the horse-lines. The soldier on my right, still in the Army’s grip and not yet victim of the nostalgia to come — a very small fly in demobilisation’s ointment, but there it is — is drunk, simply, uncomplicatedly drunk, with the lilt and swing of the tune. He rises half out of his seat, puts a steadying hand on my arm, and with the other wildly conducts the house now singing in chorus:

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant?
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?
What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.
What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears,
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

There is a limit to the number of recalls even the most grateful servant of the public may permit himself, and at last Mr Carney is allowed to retire in favour of the next turn. But my friend on the right takes some little time to simmer down. “Good ole George!” he continues to mutter under his breath. “Oh, good ole George!” And as the tumblers who come next are a dull pair, I wend my way out.

Comments: James Agate (1877-1947) was a British theatre critic, essayist and diarist. George Carney (1887-1947) was a British music hall entertainer and film actor, particularly known for his portrayal of working class characters. Collins’s Music Hall was located in Islington, London, and had a history going back to 1794. It ceased operating after having been damaged by fire in 1958. Mr Walkley is the theatre critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue are characters from Daisy Ashford’s juvenile novel The Young Visiters, as is the Earl of Clincham. Bancroft refers to the Victorian actor-manager Squire Bancroft. Lew and Jakin are drummer boy characters in Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

Source: George Atkinson Ward, The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen, an American in England, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1864 [4th ed.]), pp. 338-339

Production: Hannah Cowley, The World as It Goes; or, a Party at Montpelier, Covent Garden, London, 24 February 1781

Text: Feb. 24. To theatre to see Mrs. Cowley’s new play; unfortunately it was hissed off the stage just before the conclusion of the last act; being in its progress of acting alternately and frequently hissed by its foes and cheered by its friends; the latter proved the minority, and therefore unsuccessful, as all in minorities are in State and Church, as well as theatres. Many came for the express purpose of supporting or damning it; her husband, a writer in one of the daily papers, employs his pen in criticising works of all other stage writers, and has, by the severity of his remarks, raised up a host of determined foes to crush whatever proceeds from his quarter; though no foreign considerations were needed to banish this piece from the stage, its own intrinsic unworthiness was more than enough; being a low performance, and unworthy the pen of the author of “Belle’s Stratagem” and “Who’s the Dupe.” Knowing the writer and her connections, I feel severely for them, especially, too, as her brother is a fellow-lodger, whose exquisite delicacy of feeling must be cruelly wounded on this occasion. The prologue and epilogue were excellent, and did great credit to the performers, Mr. Lewis and Miss Young, who were rewarded with universal applause.

Comments: Samuel Curwen (1715-1802) was an American merchant and justice. As a British loyalist fled America in 1775, having been attacked for not opposing the British military action at Lexington and Concord, and spent ten years in Britain, during which time he became a supporter of the American cause. Hannah Cowley (1743-1809) was best-known for her 1780 play The Belle’s Stratagem. Its successor, The World as It Goes, subsequently retitled Second Thoughts Are Best, was a notable failure. Her journalist husband was Thomas Cowley. The prologue was written by Richard Josceline Goodenough. The performers of the prologue and epilogue, respectively, were Charles Lee Lewes and Elizabeth Younge.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journals of Washington Irving

Source: William P. Trent and George S. Hellman (eds.), The Journals of Washington Irving, vol. 1 (Boston, The Bibliophile Society, 1919), p. 123

Production: William Shakespeare (trans. August Wilhelm Iffland), King Lear, Prague, 22 November 1822

Text: Fashionable drive on a hill outside of the walls — in a broad valley bordered by trees — from house fine view in every direction — see the town below you, bristles with steeples — river below — distant hills.

In the evening saw “King Lear” performed at the theatre, translated by Iffland — the part of Lear very well performed, the translation apparently very good and exact. Part of Edgar very well done, as likewise that of Kent — the tender parts of the character of Lear particularly well done and some of the mad passages — a very crowded audience — people much affected and gave great applause — tho’ at the battle between Edgar and Edmund there were tokens of disapprobation.

Comments: Washington Irving (1783-1859) was an American writer and diplomat, best known for his short stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. He lived in Europe 1815-1832 and travelled across the continent, partly in pursuit of folk tale material. August Wilhelm Iffland (1759-1814) was a German actor and playwright.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

The Night Side of Europe

Exterior of the Moscow Art Theatre, via The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 93-99

Production: Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Nikolai Stavrogin, Moscow Art Theatre, Moscow, September 1913

Text: It was the first night of “The Possessed” at the Moscow Art Theatre. I had been warned to be in my seat at eight o’clock as it is the custom at the Moscow Art Theatre to close the doors at that hour and allow no one in the auditorium after the play has begun. So I arrived early for I was anxious to study the audience at this famous theatre in the heart of the Czar’s dominions.

A few minutes in the foyer were sufficient to convince me that the first performance of the Dostoyefsky drama would be witnessed by a gathering of “intellectuals.” There were no gorgeous uniforms, no elaborate gowns. Less than a dozen persons were in evening dress. Yet the orchestra chairs were five roubles ($2.50) each.

A warning bell sent me hurrying to find my seat. I was just in time for the doors were being closed. A few moments later — promptly at eight o’clock — the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose. There was no overture. In fact, there is no orchestra pit in the Moscow Art Theatre. When music is needed it is played under the stage.

“The Possessed” proved to be a succession of detached scenes from Dostoyefsky’s novel of the same name rather than its dramatization. The Moscow Art Theatre is equipped with a double decked revolving stage which enables scene to follow scene with only the darkening of the auditorium for a few moments to punctuate the intervals. Unlike most revolving stages it moved noiselessly.

The acting was magnificent. Although I did not understand a single word that was spoken I was able to follow the story of the play. What higher praise can be accorded actors!

I expected an outburst of applause at the end of the act but when the curtain fell the greater part of the audience silently left their seats for the foyer-promenade. Applause is never accorded the artistes at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nor are curtain calls ever allowed. Realism and naturalness above everything else are striven for.

During the second act M. Stanislauski [sic], one of the directors of the theatre, took me behind the scenes to see the double decked revolving stage in operation. There I met three Russian priests who were watching the performance. Priests in Russia are forbidden to attend theatrical performances but many of them visit the Moscow Art Theatre and witness the performances from the wings, safe from the public gaze. M. Stanislauski showed me through the dressing rooms which are so arranged that the male and female players do not meet until they reach the stage made up for their parts. They have separate green rooms and separate exits. In no theatre in the world is the comfort of the actor given so much attention.

At the end of the second act I was presented to Madame Knipper, the widow of the famous Tchekoff, who was enacting the leading role in the new play. I also had the honor of shaking hands with Mlle. Koreneff and M. Katchaloff, two other leading players. A first night in most playhouses is a nerve-racking affair — neither players nor managers have time for idle conversation. But at the Moscow Art Theatre a first performance after three months of rehearsals runs as smoothly as clockwork.

Never has the old adage, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” been better exemplified than by this unique theatre. Beginning as an amateur theatrical society, without funds or wealthy members, it has become in little more than a decade one of the foremost theatrical organizations in the world. Its home is the best equipped playhouse in Europe. And its productions are the most perfect given on any stage.

Although in Russia the Moscow Art Theatre is looked upon as the first theatre in the land it is almost unknown outside of the Czar’s Empire, except in Germany. Its company has only appeared in the leading cities of Russia and a few of the larger German capitals. Moscow is so far off the beaten track of travel that few American writers on theatrical subjects visit it. And naturally, as Russian is understood by so few people interested in the drama, the Moscow Art Theatre must remain “a thing apart.” But its influence is already so great that no one interested in theatrical affairs can afford to be ignorant of it, or to ignore it.

The Moscow Art Theatre was the first playhouse in the world to have a double decked revolving stage. Prof. Max Reinhardt adopted the idea for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and later the idea was copied by the designer of the New Theatre in New York (now the Century Opera House).

But it is in the conduct of the theatre and its productions that this playhouse is the most interesting. It is a co-operative organization owned by thirty-one actors and actresses, who appear on its stage. The entire organization consists of 360 men and women who devote their time exclusively to the artistic, financial and operating side of the playhouse. In addition to its two directors, who have practically equal responsibility, there is a governing board that passes on all important matters. After ten years’ service an actor or actress becomes a shareholder, and there is a pension system for superannuated players, as well as funds for cases of emergency. Every player is given ten weeks’ vacation with pay — their services being contracted for by the year. Thus it will be seen that from the actor’s standpoint the Moscow Art Theatre is about ideal.

Only three new productions are made each year. However, a repertory of twelve is given, former successes being repeated as often as the receipts warrant. At least three months are devoted to the preparation of each play. Consequently only finished productions are given. While the theatre is the home of the Russian drama, the dramas of other countries are not neglected. Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Hauptmann are almost as much in evidence as Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol and Tchekoff.

It is very difficult to obtain a seat for a new production at this unique theatre. For the first ten performances of each new play every seat is subscribed for, which, of course, gives the theatre working capital. The expenses of the organization are about $350,000 a year, but as its receipts are always over $400,000 it is very prosperous. However, it makes very little money in Moscow, where a full house means only $1,500. Its season in Petersburg, where it plays in the Imperial Mikhailovsky Theatre (the Royal French Theatre) means $4,000 a night, and in Kieff, Warsaw and Odessa it plays to enormous business.

The third act was on before M. Stanislauski and I returned to the auditorium. Of course he was able to pass the closed doors and he sat with me until the final curtain fell.

“Is it a success?” I asked as we emerged to the brilliantly lighted foyer.

“I think so,” he replied simply, “but we will know in the morning when we see what the critics have to say.”

Moscow is one of the few cities in the world that takes its dramatic critics seriously.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The Moscow Art Theatre company (MAT) was co-founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski, and was highly influential in its advocacy of naturalistic theatre, making its mark in particular with the plays of Anton Chekhov. The production of Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Nikolai Stavrogin, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky‘s novel The Possessed, became controversial after it stirred Maxim Gorky to write vehement articles in protest at MAT’s staging of a reactionary novel. The performers included Olga Knipper, widow of Anton Chekhov and Vasili Kachalov. A different version of this essay was published as ‘Moscow Art Theatre’ in the American journal, The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust
Alternative version published in The Theatre

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

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 15-16

Production: Anon., The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, Haymarket Theatre, London, 2 July 1767

Text: Thurs. July 2. Dined at St Clement’s Eating house. ½ past 6 went to the Haymarket Theatre, but could not get into the Pit or first Gallery, so stood on the last row of the shilling Gallery, tho’ I could see little, to see how ‘The Taylors’, a new Tragedy for warm weather, would go off, being the first night of its performance. 3rd Act hissed – the Gods in the shilling Gallery called for the ‘Builders Prologue’ – hissed off the part of the old Maid twice and Davies, who came to make an excuse. The Gentlemen, many of whom were there, cried ‘No Prologue’, but to no purpose. At last Foote said if he knew their demands he would be ready to comply with them. The noise ceasing, after some time he was told the Builders Prologue was desired. He said he had done all in his power to get the Performers, having seen them. After some time he came and informed them that he had got the performers together and if the house would be pleased ‘to accept the prologue in our dresses as we are you shall have it’. This was followed by a great clapping, which shows the genius of our English Mobility, ever generous after victory.

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. Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an English actor, dramatist and theatre manager. The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, later also known as The Quadrupeds, was a burlesque of the manners of tragic dramas, set among the world of tailors, with Foote playing Francisco and Thomas Davis playing Bernardo (some sources give Foote as the author, but the evidence is unclear). The ‘Builder’s Prologue’ was another name for a popular piece by Foote, An Occasional Prologue in Prose-Laconic, written to celebrate the Haymarket Theatre gaining its royal patent to perform spoken drama in 1766. ‘Mobility’ was a vogueish term for ‘mob’.

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.

Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House

Illustration from the pamphlet

Illustration from the pamphlet

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Astor Place Opera House, New york, 10 May 1849

Source: Sidney H. Stewart, ‘Testimony of Sidney H. Stewart’, in Account of the terrific and fatal riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House, on the night of May 10th, 1849; with the quarrels of Forrest and Macready, including all the causes which led to that awful tragedy! Wherein an infuriated mob was quelled by the public authorities and military, with its mournful termination in the sudden death or mutilation of more than fifty citizens, with full and authentic particulars (New York: H.M. Ranney, 1849), p. 21

Text: I left the Tombs that evening in company with Justice McGrath, and arrived at the Astor Theatre about 7 o’clock; soon after the doors were opened, the audience were assembling; on entering the house, I found the theatre filled with people and a large body of the police; most of the police magistrates were there; Judge Edmonds was there also; the understanding with the magistrates, Judge Edmonds, and the Chief of Police, and Recorder, was that no arrests should be made in the house, unless some overt act was committed, tending absolutely to a breach of the peace; the usual indulgence was to be allowed as to the hissing and applauding; that rule was observed. In the course of the evening, demonstrations were made by several in the parquette, by shaking their fists at Macready, threatening him with violence, by twelve or fifteen persons, certainly not to exceed twenty; an application was made at this time to the Chief of Police to arrest them, and remove them from the house; he delayed the order for some time, and finally sent for the Recorder to consult with him on the propriety of making arrests; after a consultation, it was concluded to make the arrests, which was done; in less than five minutes they were taken into custody, and order comparatively restored; about this time a great deal of hissing was heard in the amphitheatre, and loud applauding; the play was still going on; several arrests were made in the amphitheatre, by order of the Chief of Police and Recorder; about this time, the first breach of peace on the house was a large paving stone which came through the window into the house; the house continued to be assailed from those without; an alarm was given that a fire was below under the dress circle; it was soon extinguished; large stones were thrown at the doors on Eighth street, smashing in the panels, and doing other damage; the police were ordered into Eighth street, say fifteen men; on my going into the street, I saw a large concourse of people, but those near the door of the theatre were mostly boys, who were apparently throwing stones; several of them were arrested by the police and brought in; I cannot say how many were aiding in the disturbance, but certainly a very small proportion to the crowd collected; the policemen arrested some six or ten of them, and the attack on the door in Eighth street ceased; the attack then, after these arrests, was made with more violence on the front of the theatre in Astor-place; a very large crowd was collected, yet I could pass in and out with ease, comparatively; this crowd did not appear to be very turbulent; a very large number appeared to be citizens looking on, and not aiding in the disturbance; the majority of those throwing stones were boys from the ages of 12 to 18 years; several of the policemen at this time complained of being struck with stones and badly hurt; the policemen kept making arrests, and bringing them in; I cannot say how many; the crowd appeared to be increasing and more dense; the mob appeared to be determined to accomplish some particular act; there seemed to be a strong determination, although they only threw stones; the force of policemen on Astor-place amounted to from fifty to seventy-five; the mob then continued to throw stones; the military then came.

Comments: Sidney H. Stewart was Clerk of Police in New York City. He was one of several witnesses to the riot at the Astor Place Opera House on 10 May 1849 cited in the anonymous pamphlet Account of the terrific and fatal riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House. The cause of the riot was the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor William Charles Macready, which was blown up by the press during Macready’s 1848-40 tour of the United States, cast in Britain vs. America terms. A performance of Macready’s Macbeth at the Astor Place in New York on 7 May 1849 was halted after rioting in the theatre. On 10 May another performance was interrupted by rioting among rival supporters of the two actors which spilled out into the streets. The New York State Militia was called, and at least twenty-two people were shot dead, with dozens more injured.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust