Audiences

Russian Imperial Ballet at the Opera

Fragile and beautiful odalisques

Source: Arnold Bennett, extract from ‘Russian Imperial Ballet at the Opera’ in Paris Nights, and Other Impressions of Places and People (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 68-78

Production: Mikhail Fokine, Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade, Palais Garnier, Paris, 1910

Text: I looked over the crimson plush edge of the box down into Egypt, where Cleopatra was indulging her desires; into a civilisation so gorgeous, primitive, and far-off that when compared to it the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries seemed as like as two peas in their sophistication and sobriety. Cleopatra had set eyes on a youth, and a whim for him had taken her. By no matter what atrocious exercise of power and infliction of suffering, that whim had to be satisfied on the instant. It was satisfied. And a swift homicide left the Queen untrammelled by any sentimental consequences. The whole affair was finished in a moment, and the curtain falling on all that violent and gorgeous scene. In a moment this Oriental episode, interpreted by semi-Oriental artists, had made all the daring prurient suggestiveness of French comedy seem timid and foolish. It was a revelation. A new standard was set, and there was not a vaudevillist in the auditorium but knew that neither he nor his interpeters could ever reach that standard. The simple and childlike gestures of the slave-girls as with their bodies and their veils they formed a circular tent to hide Cleopatra and her lover – these gestures took away the breath of protest.

Les sylphides

The St. Petersburg and the Moscow troupes, united, of the Russian Imperial Ballet, had been brought to Paris, at vast expense and considerable loss, to present this astounding spectacle of mere magnificent sanguinary lubricity to the cosmopolitan fashion of Paris. There the audience actually was, rank after rank of crowded toilettes rising to the dim ceiling, young women from the Avenue du Bois and young women from Arizona, and their protective and possessive men. And nobody blenched, no body swooned. The audience was taken by assault. The West End of Europe was just staggered into acceptance. As yet London has seen only fragments of Russian ballet. But London may and probably will see the whole. Let there be no qualms. London will accept also. London might be horribly scared by one-quarter of the audacity shown in Cleopatra, but it will not be scared by the whole of that audacity. An overdose of a fatal drug is itself an antidote. The fact is, that the spectacle was saved by a sort of moral nudity, and by a naïve assurance of its own beauty. Oh! It was extremely beautiful. It was ineffably more beautiful than any other ballet I had ever seen. An artist could feel at once that an intelligence of really remarkable genius had presided over its invention and execution. It was masterfully original from the beginning. It continually furnished new ideals of beauty. It had drawn its inspiration from some rich fountain unknown to us occidentals. Neither in its scenery, nor in its grouping, nor in its pantomime was there any clear trace of that Italian influence which still dominates the European ballet. With a vengeance it was a return to nature and a recommencement. It was brutally direct. It was beastlike; but the incomparable tiger is a beast. It was not perverse. It was too fresh, zealous, and alive to be perverse. Personally I was conscious of the most intense pleasure that I had experienced in a theatre for years. And this was Russia! This was the country that had made such a deadly and disgusting mess of the Russo-Japanese War.

The box was a stage-box. It consisted of a suite of two drawing-rooms, softly upholstered, lit with electric light, and furnished with easy-chairs and mirrors. A hostess might well have offered tea to a score of guests therein. And as a fact there were a dozen people in it. Its size indicated the dimensions of the auditorium, in which it was a mere cell. The curious thing about it was the purely incidental character of its relation to the stage. The front of it was a narrow terrace, like the mouth of a bottle, which offered a magnificent panorama of the auditorium, with a longitudinal slice of the stage at one extremity. From the terrace one glanced vertically down at the stage, as at a street-pavement from a first-storey window. Three persons could be comfortable, and four could be uncomfortable, on the terrace. One or two more, by leaning against chair backs and coiffures, could see half of the longitudinal slice of the stage. The remaining half-dozen were at liberty to meditate in the luxurious twilight of the drawing-room. The Republic, as operatic manager, sells every night some scores, and on its brilliant nights some hundreds, of expensive seats which it is perfectly well aware give no view what
ever of the stage: another illustration of the truth that the sensibility of the conscience of corporations varies inversely with the size of the corporation.

The unforgettable season

But this is nothing. The wonderful aspect of the transaction is that purchasers never lack. They buy and suffer; they buy again and suffer yet again; they live on and reproduce their kind. There was in the hinterland of the box a dapper, vivacious man who might (if he had wasted no time ) have been grandfather to a man as old as I. He was eighty-five years old, and he had sat in boxes of an evening for over sixty years. He talked easily of the heroic age before the Revolution of ’48, when, of course, every woman was an enchantress, and the farces at the Palais Royal were really amusing. He could pipe out whole pages of farce. Except during the entr’actes this man’s curiosity did not extend beyond the shoulders of the young women on the terrace. For him the spectacle might have been something going on round the corner of the next street. He was in a spacious and discreet drawing-room; he had the habit of talking; talking was an essential part of his nightly hygiene; and he talked. Continually impinging, in a manner fourth-dimensional, on my vision of Cleopatra’s violent afternoon, came the “Je me rappelle” of this ancient. Now he was in Rome, now he was in London, and now he was in Florence. He went nightly to the Pergola Theatre when Florence was the capital of Italy. He had tales of kings. He had one tale of a king which, as I could judge from the hard perfection of its phraseology, he had been repeating on every night-out for fifty years. According to this narration he was promenading the inevitable pretty woman in the Cascine at Florence, when a heavily moustached person en civil flashed by, driving a pair of superb bays, and he explained not without pride to the pretty woman that she looked on a king.

“It is that, the king?” exclaimed the pretty ingénue too loudly.

And with a grand bow (of which the present generation has lost the secret) the moustaches, all flashing and driving, leaned from the equipage and answered: “Yes, madame, it is that, the king.

“Et si vous aviez vu la tête de la dame…!” In those days society existed.

I should have heard many more such tales during the entr’acte, but I had to visit the stage. Strictly, I did not desire to visit the stage, but as I possessed the privilege of doing so, I felt bound in pride to go. I saw myself at the great age of eighty-five recounting to somebody else’s grandchildren the marvels that I had witnessed in the coulisses of the Paris Opéra during the unforgettable season of the Russian Imperial Ballet in the early years of the century, when society existed.

At an angle of a passage which connects the auditorium with the tray (the stage is called the tray, and those who call the stage the stage at the Opéra are simpletons and lack guile) were a table and a chair, and, partly on the chair and partly on the table, a stout respectable man: one of the twelve hundred. He looked like a town-councillor, and his life-work on this planet was to distinguish between persons who had the entry and persons who had not the entry. He doubted my genuineness at once, and all the bureaucrat in him glowered from his eyes. Yes! My card was all right, but it made no mention of madame. Therefore, I might pass, but madame might not. Moreover, save in cases very exceptional, ladies were not admitted to the tray. So it appeared! I was up against an entire department of the State. Human nature is such that at that moment, had some power offered me the choice between the ability to write a novel as fine as Crime and Punishment and the ability to triumph instantly over the pestilent town-councillor, I would have chosen the latter. I retired in good order. “You little suspect, town-councillor,” I said to him within myself, “that I am the guest of the management, that I am extremely intimate with the management, and that, indeed, the management is my washpot!” At the next entr’acte I returned again with an omnipotent document which instructed the whole twelve hundred to let both monsieur and madame pass anywhere, everywhere. The town-councillor admitted that it was perfect, so far as it went. But there was the question of my hat to be considered. I was not wearing the right kind of hat! The town councillor planted both his feet firmly on tradition, and defied imperial passports. “Can you have any conception,” I cried to him within myself, “how much this hat cost me at Henry Heath’s?” Useless! Nobody ever had passed, and nobody ever would pass, from the auditorium to the tray in a hat like mine. It was unthinkable. It would be an outrage on the Code Napoléon…. After all, the man had his life-work to perform. At length he offered to keep my hat for me till I came back. I yielded. I was beaten. I was put to shame. But he had earned a night’s repose.

* * * * * *

The famous, the notorious foyer de la danse was empty. Here was an evening given exclusively to the ballet, and not one member of the corps had had the idea of exhibiting herself in the showroom specially provided by the State as a place or rendezvous for ladies and gentlemen. The most precious quality of an annual subscription for a seat at the Opéra is that it carries with it the entry to the foyer de la danse (provided one’s hat is right); if it did not, the subscriptions to the Opéra would assuredly diminish. And lo! the gigantic but tawdry mirror which gives a factitious amplitude to a room that is really small, did not reflect the limbs of a single dancer! The place had a mournful, shabby genteel look, as of a resort gradually losing fashion. It was tarnished. It did not in the least correspond with a young man’s dreams of it. Yawning tedium hung in it like a vapour, that tedium which is the implacable secret enemy of dissoluteness. This, the foyer de la danse, where the insipidly vicious heroines of Halévy’s ironic masterpiece achieved, with a mother’s aid, their ducal conquests! It was as cruel a disillusion as the first sight of Rome or Jerusalem. Its meretriciousness would not have deceived even a visionary parlour-maid. Nevertheless, the world of the Opéra was astounded at the neglect of its hallowed foyer by these young women from St. Petersburg and Moscow. I was told, with emotion, that on only two occasions in the whole season had a Russian girl wandered therein. The legend of the sobriety and the chastity of these strange Russians was abroad in the Opéra like a strange, uncanny tale. Frankly, Paris could not understand it. Because all these creatures were young, and all of them conformed to some standard or other of positive physical beauty! They could not be old, for the reason that a ukase obliged them to retire after twenty years’ service at latest; that is, at about the age of thirty-six, a time of woman’s life which on the Paris stage is regarded as infancy. Such a ukase must surely have been promulgated by Ivan the Terrible or Catherine!… No! Paris never recovered from the wonder of the fact that when they were not dancing these lovely girls were just honest misses, with apparently no taste for bank-notes and spiced meats, even in the fever of an unexampled artistic and fashionable success.

An honest miss

Amid the turmoil of the stage, where the prodigiously original peacock-green scenery of Scheherazade was being set, a dancer could be seen here and there in a corner, waiting, preoccupied, worried, practising a step or a gesture. I was clumsy enough to encounter one of the principals who did not want to be encountered; we could not escape from each other. There was nothing for it but to shake hands. His face assumed the weary, unwilling smile of conventional politeness. His fingers were limp.

“It pleases you?”
“Enormously.”

I turned resolutely away at once, and with relief he lapsed back into his preoccupation concerning the half-hour’s intense emotional and physical labour that lay immediately in front of him. In a few moments the curtain went up, and the terrific creative energy of the troupe began to vent itself. And I began to understand a part of the secret of the extreme brilliance of the Russian ballet.

Chief eunuch

The brutality of Scheherazade was shocking. It was the Arabian Nights treated with imaginative realism. In perusing the Arabian Nights we never try to picture to ourselves the manners of a real Bagdad; or we never dare. We lean on the picturesque splendour and romantic poetry of certain aspects of the existence portrayed, and we shirk the basic facts: the crudity of the passions, and the superlative cruelty informing the whole social system. For example, we should not dream of dwelling on the more serious functions of the caliphian eunuchs. In the surpassing fury and magnificence of the Russian ballet one saw eunuchs actually at work, scimitar in hand. There was the frantic orgy, and then there was the barbarous punishment, terrible and revolting; certainly one of the most sanguinary sights ever seen on an occidental stage. The eunuchs pursued the fragile and beautiful odalisques with frenzy; in an instant the seraglio was strewn with murdered girls in all the abandoned postures of death. And then silence, save for the hard breathing of the executioners!… A thrill! It would seem incredible that such a spectacle should give pleasure. Yet it unquestionably did, and very exquisite pleasure. The artists, both the creative and the interpretative, had discovered an artistic convention which was at once grandiose and truthful. The passions displayed were primitive, but they were ennobled in their illustration. The performance was regulated to the least gesture; no detail was unstudied; and every moment was beautiful; not a few were sublime.

Scheherazade

And all this a by-product of Russian politics! If the politics of France are subtly corrupt; if any thing can be done in France by nepotism and influence, and nothing without; if the governing machine of France is fatally vitiated by an excessive and unimaginative centralisation — the same is far more shamefully true of Russia. The fantastic in efficiency of all the great departments of State in Russia is notorious and scandalous. But the Imperial ballet, where one might surely have presumed an intensification of every defect (as in Paris), happens to be far nearer perfection than any other enterprise of its kind, public or private. It is genuinely dominated by artists of the first rank; it is invigorated by a real discipline; and the results achieved approach the miraculous. The pity is that the moujik can never learn that one, at any rate, of the mysterious transactions which pass high up over his head, and for which he is robbed, is in itself honest and excellent. An alleviating thought for the moujik, if only it could be knocked into his great thick head! For during the performance of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Paris Opéra, amid all the roods of toilettes and expensive correctness, one thinks of the moujik; or one ought to think of him. He is at the bottom of it. See him in Tchekoff’s masterly tale, The Moujiks, in his dirt, squalor, drunkenness, lust, servitude, and despair! Realise him well at the back of your mind as you watch the ballet! Your delightful sensations before an unrivalled work of art are among the things he has paid for.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist and playwright. He lived in Paris from 1902 to 1912. In 1910 he saw the ballets Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade (based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s music), choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and performed by the Ballet Russes. Sergei Diaghilev formed the touring company out of members of the The Mariinsky Ballet, or Imperial Russian Ballet, in 1909. It became known as the Ballet Russes the following year. The illustrations by E.A. Rickards, with their captions, come from Bennett’s book.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba

Source: William Seymour Edwards, On the Mexican Highlands, with a Passing Glimpse of Cuba (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1906), pp. 198-200

Text: Last night was to be my final one in Mexico, and as a troupe of Spanish actors was billed at one of the larger theaters, I went to see the play. There are a number of playhouses in the city, and paternal government is laying the foundation for an opera-house which, it is announced, will be one of the most “magnifico” in the world. The theater we attended was one of the largest, and the actors, Spaniards from Barcelona, were filling a season’s engagement. In purchasing tickets, the first novelty was the separate coupons which are issued for each act. You buy for one act or another as you prefer. The Mexicans rarely stay the play out, but linger for an act or two and then depart. There are tiers of boxes around the sides, in which were many men and ladies in evening dress, the belles and beaux of the city. We sat among the occupants of the seats upon the floor, the greater part of whom were men. The first noticeable difference between the audience here and that at home is that every man keeps on his hat except when occupying a box. It is bad enough, we think, for a woman to retain her hat or bonnet, but imagine how it is when you are confronted by multitudinous high-peaked broad-brimmed sombreros of the most obtrusive type. The excuse for the wearing of these great hats upon all occasions is, that in the chilly air of these high altitudes, it becomes a necessary protection.

The faces about me were dark; even the men in the boxes were of darker color than would be those of the pure Spanish blood. The women are also dark, their color much darker than that of the usual mulatto in the States. This is due to the large infusion of Indian blood among the Mexican people, even among the leisure classes.

The actors were of the Spanish swarthy type, but among the actresses, there were, as always, two or three with conspicuously red heads, the Venetian red so pronounced and popular among the London shopgirls. These red headed belles received the entire attention and applause of the male portion of the audience. The audience also smoked incessantly, the gentlemen large Mexican cigars, the ladies their cigarettes. The right to smoke is an inalienable privilege of both sexes in Mexico, the women using tobacco almost as freely and constantly as do the men. The acting was good, and some of the fandango dances brought thunders of bravos. The pauses between acts were long. In one of the intervals we sauntered out upon the streets, where a mob of ticket brokers so assailed us and bargained so successfully for our remaining coupons, that we sold them at an advance over the figure we had paid. The plays begin early, about seven o’clock, and the doors stay open until midnight, the constantly changing audiences giving to the actors fresh support.

On a previous night we visited another theater, where a more fashionable company gathered to see the well-known Frenchman, Frijoli, in his clever impersonations of character. Here were assembled Mexico’s most fashionable set, among them a party of distinguished South Americans attending the Pan-American Congress, the ladies from Brazil, Argentina, and Chili wearing costly diamonds, and being in full decollete attire.

Here also the sombrero reigned supreme in dress circle and on parquet floor, and smoking was everywhere indulged in.

Comments: William Seymour Edwards (1856-1915) was an American businessman, Republican politicians and travel writer. He visited Mexico and Cuba in 1905-06. The theatre he attended was in Mexico City.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixot

Source: Edmund Gayton, Pleasant Notes upon Don Quixot (London, 1654)

Text: And although the only Laureat of our stage (having compos’d a Play of excellent worth, but not of equall applause) fell downe upon his knees, and gave thanks, that he had transcended the capacity of the vulgar; yet his protestation against their ignorance, was not sufficient to vindicate the misapplication of the argument; for the judicious part of that Auditory condemn’d it equally with those that did not understand it, and though the Comaedy wanted not its

prodesse, & delectare,

Had it been exhibited to a scholastick confluence; yet men come not to study at a Play-house, but love such expressions and passages, which with ease insinuate themselves into their capacities. Lingua, that learned Comaedy of the contention betwixt the five senses for the superiority, is not to be prostituted to the common stage, but is only proper for an Academy; to them bring Iack Drumm’s entertainment, Greens tu quoque, the Devill of Edmunton, and the like; or if it be on Holy dayes, when Saylers, Water-men, Shoomakers, Butchers and Apprentices are at leisure, then it is good policy to amaze those violent spirits, with some tearing Tragaedy full of fights and skirmishes: As the Guelphs and Guiblins, Greeks and Trojans, or the three London Apprentises, which commonly ends in six acts, the spectators frequently mounting the stage, and making a more bloody Catastrophe amongst themselves, then the Players did. I have known upon one of these Festivals, but especially at Shrove-tide, where the Players have been appointed, notwithstanding their bils to the contrary, to act what the major part of the company had a mind to; sometimes Tamerlane, sometimes Iugurth, sometimes the Jew of Malta, and sometimes parts of all these, and at last, none of the three taking, they were forc’d to undresse and put off their Tragick habits, and conclude the day with the merry milk-maides. And unlesse this were done, and the popular humour satisfied, as sometimes it so fortun’d, that the Players were refractory; the Benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, Oranges, Apples, Nuts, flew about most liberally, and as there were Mechanicks of all professions, who fell every one to his owne trade, and dissolved a house in an instant, and made a ruine of a stately Fabrick. It was not then the most mimicall nor fighting man, Fowler, nor Andrew Cane could pacifie; Prologues nor Epilogues would prevaile; the Devill and the fool were quite out of favour. Nothing but noise and tumult fils the house, untill a cogg take ‘um, and then to the Bawdy houses, and reforme them; and instantly to the Banks side, where the poor Beares must conclude the riot, and fight twenty dogs at a time beside the Butchers, which sometimes fell into the service; this perform’d, and the Horse and Jack-an-Apes for a jigge, they had sport enough that day for nothing.

Comments: Edmund Gayton (1608-1666) was an English physician and writer. His Pleasant notes upon Don Quixot, known as also as Festivous Notes upon Don Quixot is a rambling study of Don Quixote which many asides anecdotes, including observations on the theatre. It was published in 1654, when theatrical performances in England were banned under Cromwell’s regime, so his recollections of the misbehaviour of audiences at theatrical performances during Shrovetide probably refers to the 1630s. The plays referred to include The Merry Devil of Edmonton, John Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine the Great, William Boyle’s Jugurth (possibly), and presumably Thomas Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London.

Links: Copy at Early English Books Online

Travels with Herodotus

Source: Ryszard Kapuściński (trans. Klara Glowczewska), Travels with Herodotus (Lonson: Allen Lane, 2007 [orig. pub. Podróże z Herodotem, 2004]), pp. 241-243

Text: Theatrical performances abound in the streets and squares. African theater is not as formalistic as the European. A group of people can gather someplace extemporaneously and perform an impromptu play. There is no text, everything is the product of the moment, of the passing mood, of spontaneous imagination. The subject can be anything: the police catching a gang of thieves, merchants fighting to keep the city from taking away their marketplace. wives competing among themselves for their husband, who is in love with some other woman. The subject matter must be simple. the language comprehensible to all.

Someone has an idea and volunteers to be director. He assigns roles and the play begins. If this is a street, a square, or a courtyard, a crowd of passersby soon gathers. People laugh during the performance, offer running commentary, applaud. If the action unfolds in an interesting way, the audience will stand there attentively despite the punishing sun: if the play does not jell, and the ad hoc troupe proves unable to communicate and move the action forward effectively, the performance is soon over and the spectators and actors disperse, making way for others who may have better luck.

Sometimes I see the actors interrupt their dialogue and begin a ritual dance, with the entire audience joining in. It can be a cheerful and joyous dance, or the opposite—with the dancers serious, focused, and collective participation in the common rhythm an evidently profound experience for them, something meaningful touching their core. But then the dancing ends, the actors return to their spoken parts, and the spectators, for a moment still as if entranced, laugh once again, happy and amused.

Street theater includes not just dance. Its other important, even inseparable element is the mask. The actors sometimes perform in masks, or, because it is difficult in this heat to wear one for long, simply hold them near—in their hands, under their arms, even strapped to their backs. The mask is a symbol. a construct full of emotion and resonance that speaks of the existence of some other universe, whose sign, stamp, or presence it is. It communicates something to us, warns us about someone; seemingly lifeless and motionless, it attempts by means of its appearance to arouse our feelings, put us under its spell.

Borrowing from various museums, Senghor collected thousands upon thousands of such masks. When seen in the aggregate, they evoke a separate, mysterious world. Walking through that collection was a singular experience. One began to understand how masks acquired such power over people, how they could hypnotize, overwhelm, or lead people into ecstasy. It became clear why the mask—and faith in its magical efficacy—united entire societies, enabled them to communicate across continents and oceans, gave them a sense of community and identity, constituted a form of tradition and collective memory.

Walking from one theatrical performance to another, from one exhibit of masks and sculptures to others, I had the sense of being witness to the rebirth of a great culture, to the awakening of its sense of distinctness, importance, and pride, the consciousness of its universal range. Here were not only masks from Mozambique and Congo, but also lanterns for macumba rituals from Rio de Janeiro, the escutcheons of the guardian deities of Haitian voodoo, and copies of the sarcophagi of Egyptian pharaohs.

Comments: Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist and travel writer. Travels with Herodotus is an account of his early years as a journalist in India, China and Africa, interwoven with his reading of the Histories of Herodotus. The book includes an account of his visit to Senegal in 1966, when the president Léopold Senghor hosted a festival of worldwide black art in Dakar, the Premier Festival Mondial des Arts Negres.

Travels in England in 1782

1783 drawing of the original Haymarket Theatre, via Charles John Smith, Historical and Literary Curiosities (1847)

Source: Charles P. Moritz [Karl Philipp Moritz], Travels in England in 1782 (London: Cassell, 1886), pp. 73-74, orig. pub. Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782 (1783) and in English as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend (1795)

Productions: Samuel Foote, The Nabob and Samuel Arnold/John O’Keefe, The Agreeable Surprise, Haymarket Theatre, London, 4 June 1782; and George Colman (the elder), The English Merchant and The Agreeable Surprise, 15 June 1782

Text: Last week I went twice to an English play-house. The first time “The Nabob” was represented, of which the late Mr. Foote was the author, and for the entertainment, a very pleasing and laughable musical farce, called “The Agreeable Surprise.” The second time I saw “The English Merchant:” which piece has been translated into German, and is known among us by the title of “The Scotchwoman,” or “The Coffee-house.” I have not yet seen the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, because they are not open in summer. The best actors also usually spend May and October in the country, and only perform in winter.

A very few excepted, the comedians whom I saw were certainly nothing extraordinary. For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom. Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence. At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up. I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside, with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one. Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool. In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

In Foote’s “Nabob” there are sundry local and personal satires which are entirely lost to a foreigner. The character of the Nabob was performed by a Mr. Palmer. The jett of the character is, this Nabob, with many affected airs and constant aims at gentility, is still but a silly fellow, unexpectedly come into the possession of immense riches, and therefore, of course, paid much court to by a society of natural philosophers, Quakers, and I do not know who besides. Being tempted to become one of their members, he is elected, and in order to ridicule these would-be philosophers, but real knaves, a fine flowery fustian speech is put into his mouth, which he delivers with prodigious pomp and importance, and is listened to by the philosophers with infinite complacency. The two scenes of the Quakers and philosophers, who, with countenances full of imaginary importance, were seated at a green table with their president at their head while the secretary, with the utmost care, was making an inventory of the ridiculous presents of the Nabob, were truly laughable. One of the last scenes was best received: it is that in which the Nabob’s friend and school-fellow visit him, and address him without ceremony by his Christian name; but to all their questions of “Whether he does not recollect them? Whether he does not remember such and such a play; or such and such a scrape into which they had fallen in their youth?” he uniformly answers with a look of ineffable contempt, only, “No sir!” Nothing can possibly be more ludicrous, nor more comic.

The entertainment, “The Agreeable Surprise,” is really a very diverting farce. I observed that, in England also, they represent school-masters in ridiculous characters on the stage, which, though I am sorry for, I own I do not wonder at, as the pedantry of school-masters in England, they tell me, is carried at least as far as it is elsewhere. The same person who, in the play, performed the school-fellow of the Nabob with a great deal of nature and original humour, here acted the part of the school-master: his name is Edwin, and he is, without doubt, one of the best actors of all that I have seen.

This school-master is in love with a certain country girl, whose name is Cowslip, to whom he makes a declaration of his passion in a strange mythological, grammatical style and manner, and to whom, among other fooleries, he sings, quite enraptured, the following air, and seems to work himself at least up to such a transport of passion as quite overpowers him. He begins, you will observe, with the conjugation, and ends with the declensions and the genders; the whole is inimitably droll:

Amo, amas,
I love a lass,
She is so sweet and tender,
It is sweet Cowslip’s Grace
In the Nominative Case.
And in the feminine Gender.

Those two sentences in particular, “in the Nominative Case,” and “in the feminine Gender,” he affects to sing in a particularly languishing air, as if confident that it was irresistible. This Edwin, in all his comic characters, still preserves something so inexpressibly good-tempered in his countenance, that notwithstanding all his burlesques and even grotesque buffoonery, you cannot but be pleased with him. I own, I felt myself doubly interested for every character which he represented. Nothing could equal the tone and countenance of self-satisfaction with which he answered one who asked him whether he was a scholar? “Why, I was a master of scholars.” A Mrs. Webb represented a cheesemonger, and played the part of a woman of the lower class so naturally as I have nowhere else ever seen equalled. Her huge, fat, and lusty carcase, and the whole of her external appearance seemed quite to be cut out for it.

Poor Edwin was obliged, as school-master, to sing himself almost hoarse, as he sometimes was called on to repeat his declension and conjugation songs two or three times, only because it pleased the upper gallery, or “the gods,” as the English call them, to roar out “encore.” Add to all this, he was farther forced to thank them with a low bow for the great honour done him by their applause.

One of the highest comic touches in the piece seemed to me to consist in a lie, which always became more and more enormous in the mouths of those who told it again, during the whole of the piece. This kept the audience in almost a continual fit of laughter. This farce is not yet printed, or I really think I should be tempted to venture to make a translation, or rather an imitation of it.

“The English Merchant, or the Scotchwoman,” I have seen much better performed abroad than it was here. Mr. Fleck, at Hamburg, in particular, played the part of the English merchant with more interest, truth, and propriety than one Aickin did here. He seemed to me to fail totally in expressing the peculiar and original character of Freeport; instead of which, by his measured step and deliberate, affected manner of speaking, he converted him into a mere fine gentleman.

The trusty old servant who wishes to give up his life for his master he, too, had the stately walk, or strut, of a minister. The character of the newspaper writer was performed by the same Mr. Palmer who acted the part of the Nabob, but every one said, what I thought, that he made him far too much of a gentleman. His person, and his dress also, were too handsome for the character.

The character of Amelia was performed by an actress, who made her first appearance on the stage, and from a timidity natural on such an occasion, and not unbecoming, spoke rather low, so that she could not everywhere be heard; “Speak louder! speak louder!” cried out some rude fellow from the upper-gallery, and she immediately, with infinite condescension, did all she could, and not unsuccessfully, to please even an upper gallery critic.

The persons near me, in the pit, were often extravagantly lavish of their applause. They sometimes clapped a single solitary sentiment, that was almost as unmeaning as it was short, if it happened to be pronounced only with some little emphasis, or to contain some little point, some popular doctrine, a singularly pathetic stroke, or turn of wit.

“The Agreeable Surprise” was repeated, and I saw it a second time with unabated pleasure. It is become a favourite piece, and always announced with the addition of the favourite musical farce. The theatre appeared to me somewhat larger than the one at Hamburg, and the house was both times very full. Thus much for English plays, play-houses, and players.

Comments: Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) was a German essayist and literary critic. He visited England over June/July 1782, publishing an account of his travels as Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782 in 1783, which was published in English as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend (1795). The above comes from this translation, though improved translations have been published subsequently. He first visited the Haymarket on 4 June 1782, where he saw Samuel Foote‘s comedy The Nabob and Samuel Arnold and John O’Keefe‘s comic opera afterpiece The Agreeable Surprise. He returned on 15 June 1782 to see George Colman the Elder‘s The Englishman Merchant, followed by a repeat performance of The Agreeable Surprise. The performers described include John Palmer, John Edwin and (presumably) James Aickin.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Astley’s Amphitheatre, via V&A

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), p. 155

Text: May 9 [1811] … Astley’s is an equestrian spectacle. I supposed that a thing of that sort would be particularly good in England, which is a sort of island of the Houyhnhnms. I found, however, that the horses were but indifferently trained, and the men performed only common feats; and, instead of equitation, we had dramatic pieces and Harlequin tricks, — battles and assaults, — Moors and Saracens. The horses performed as actors, just as at Covent Garden; they galloped over the pit, and mounted the boards of the stage covered with earth, storming walls and ramparts. The interval between the exhibitions being very long, a parcel of dirty boys (amateurs), in rags, performed awkward tricks of tumbling, raising a cloud of dust, and showing their nakedness to the applauding audience; the vociferations from the gallery were perfectly deafening, and the hoarse vulgar voice of the clown eagerly re-echoed by them. Looking round the room, meanwhile, I saw the boxes filled with decent people, — grave and demure citizens, with their wives and children, who seemed to take pleasure in all this. It is really impossible not to form an unfavourable opinion of the taste of the English public, when we find them in general so excessively low and vulgar in the choice of their amusements.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. Astley’s Amphitheatre was originally a circus (opened 1770), but later put on pantomimes and other such entertainments. It was located by Westminster Bridge and had burned down twice before it became famous in the 1800s for its equestrian spectaculars Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses in Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels.

Links:

‘Neath the Mask

Source: Eric Lugg, quoted in John M. East, ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967), p. 140

Text: The whole atmosphere of playgoing at the Lyric was an exciting thing. It was something I shall never forget, and an experience I have never recaptured in any other theatre. Before the curtain rose everybody shouted greetings to each other like “’Ello, Liz!” and then a “Watcher ‘Arry” would come back. There was an incomparable, yet pleasant odour about the place, a mixture of human bodies, orange-peel and tobacco-smoke, and generally a tremendous air of expectancy. Then the band would come into the pit, and begin to tune up, and finally the curtain would rise. And what stage pictures they were! What vitality! What red-blooded magnificent acting! And the incidental music, that was exciting too. “Deberterdom, deberterdom, deberterdom” accompanied the sort of “Will he get there in time?” scene, and the violins would “Der, der, der, der, der, der, der, de, la la la la la la la” we the poor mite was begging for pennies in the snow. Yes, all this added up to a wonderful might in the theatre.

Comments: Eric Lugg (1890-1979) was a British stage and film actor. He is recalling his impressions of the company of John M. East at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London (then known as the New Lyric Opera House), in the early 1900s. Lugg’s father and uncle had acted for East, a celebrated actor-producer of stage melodramas, also a silent film actor, whose grandson, the actor and broadcaster John M. East, wrote his biography.

The Variétés

The Théâtre des Variétés, 1900, via Wikipedia

Source: Arnold Bennett, ‘The Variétés’ in Paris Nights, and Other Impressions of Places and People (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 13-20

Text: The filth and the paltry shabbiness of the entrance to the theatre amounted to cynicism. Instead of uplifting by a foretaste of light and magnificence, as the entrance to a theatre should, it depressed by its neglected squalour. Twenty years earlier it might have cried urgently for cleansing and redecoration, but now it was long past crying. It had become vile. In the centre at the back sat a row of three or four officials in evening dress, prosperous clubmen with glittering rakish hats, at a distance of twenty feet, but changing as we approached them to indigent, fustian-clad ticket-clerks penned in a rickety rostrum and condemned like sandwich-men to be ridiculous in order to live. (Their appearance recalled to my mind the fact that a “front-of-the-house” inspector at the principal music-hall in France and in Europe is paid thirty sous a night.) They regarded our tickets with gestures of scorn, weariness, and cupidity. None knew better than they that these coloured scraps represented a large lovely gold coin, rare and yet plentiful, reassuring and yet transient, the price of coals, boots, nectar, and love. We came to a very narrow, low, foul, semi-circular tunnel which was occupied by hags and harpies with pink bows in their hair, and by marauding men, and by hats and cloaks and overcoats, and by a double odour of dirt and disinfectants. Along the convex side of the tunnel were a number of little doors like the doors of cells. We bought a programme from a man, yielded our wraps to two harpies, and were led away by another man. All these beings looked hungrily apprehensive, like dogs nosing along a gutter. The auditorium which was nearly full, had the same characteristics as the porch and the couloir. It was filthy, fetid, uncomfortable, and dangerous. It had the carpets of a lodging-house of the ‘seventies, the seats of an old omnibus, the gilt and the decorated sculpture of a circus at a fair. And it was dingy! It was encrusted with dinginess!

Something seemed to be afoot on the stage: from the embittered resignation of the audience and the perfunctory nonchalance of the players, we knew that this could only be the curtain-raiser. The hour was ten minutes past nine. The principal piece was advertised to commence at nine o’clock. But the curtain-raiser was not yet finished, and after it was finished there would be the entr’acte — one of the renowned, interminable entr’actes of the Theatre des Variétés.

The Variétés is still one of the most “truly Parisian” of theatres, and has been so since long before Zola described it fully in Nana. The young bloods of Buenos Ayres and St. Petersburg still have visions of an evening at the Variétés as the superlative of intense living. Every theatre with a reputation has its “note,” and the note of the Variétés is to make a fool of its public. Its attitude to the public is that of an English provincial hotel or an English bank: “Come, and be d — d to you! Above all, do not imagine that I exist for your convenience. You exist for mine.” At the Variétés bad management is good management; slackness is a virtuous coquetterie. It would never do, thereto be prompt, clean, or honest. To make the theatre passably habitable would be ruin. Its chic would be lost if it ceased to be a Hades of discomfort and a menace to health. There is a small troupe of notorious artistes, some of whom show great talent when it occurs to them to show it; the vogue of the rest is one of the innumerable mysteries which abound in theatrical life. It is axiomatic that they are all witty, and that whatever lines they enunciate thereby become witty. They are simply side-splitting as Sydney Smith was simply side-splitting when he asked for the potatoes to be passed. Also the manager of the theatre always wears an old straw hat, summer and winter. He is the wearer of an eternal battered straw hat, who incidentally manages a theatre. You go along the boulevard, and you happen to see that straw hat emerging from the theatre. And by the strange potency of the hat you will be obliged to say to the next acquaintance you meet: “I’ve just seen Samuel in his straw hat.” And the thought in your mind and in the mind of your acquaintance will be that you are getting very near the heart of Paris.

Beyond question the troupe of favourites considers itself to be the real centre of Paris, and, therefore, of civilisation. Practically the entire Press, either by good nature, stupidity, snobbishness, or simple cash transactions, takes part in the vast make-believe that the troupe is conferring a favour on civilisation by consenting to be alive. And the troupe of course behaves accordingly. It puts its back into the evening when it thinks it will, and when it thinks it won’t, it doesn’t. “Aux Variétés on travaille quand on a le temps.” The rise of the curtain awaits the caprice of a convivial green-room. “Don’t hurry — the public is getting impatient.” Naturally, the underlings are not included in the benefits of the make-believe. “At rehearsals we may wait two hours for the principals,” a chorus- girl said to me. “But if we are five minutes late, one flings us a fine. A hundred francs a month I touch, and it has happened to me to pay thirty in fines. Someone gets all that, you know!” She went off into an impassioned description of scenes at rehearsals of a ballet, how the ballet-master, after epical outbursts, would always throw up his arms in inexpressible disgust and retire to his room, and how the women would follow him and kiss and cajole and hug him, and how then, after a majestic pause, his step could be heard slowly descending the stairs, and at last the rehearsal would resume. . . . The human interest, no doubt!

The Variétés has another rôle and justification. It is what the French call a women’s theatre. When I asked a well-known actress why the entr’actes at the Variétés were so long, she replied with her air of finding even the most bizarre phenomena quite natural: “There are several reasons. One is, so that the gentlemen may have time to write notes and to receive answers.” I did not conceal my sense of the oddness of this method of conducting a theatre, whereupon she reminded me that it was the Variétés we were talking about. She said that little by little I should understand all sorts of things.

As the principal piece progressed — it was an opérette — the apathy of the public grew more and more noticeable. They seemed to have forgotten that they were in one of the most truly Parisian of theatres, watching players whose names were household words and synonyms of wit and allurement. There was no applause, save from a claque which had carried discipline to the extreme. The favourites were evidently in one of their moods of casual ness. Either the piece had run too long or it was not going to run long enough. It was a piece brightly and jinglingly vulgar, ministering, of course, in the main, to the secret concupiscence which drives humanity forward; titillating, like most stage-spectacles, all that is base, inept, and gross in a crowd whose units are perhaps, not quite odious. A few of the performers had moments of real brilliance. But even these flashes did not stir the public, whose characteristic was stolidity. A public which, having regard to the conditions of the particular theatre, necessarily consisted of simple snobbish gulls whose creed is whatever they read or hear, with an admixture of foreigners, provincials, adventurers, and persons who, having no illusions, go to the Variétés because they have been to everything else and must go somewhere! The first half-dozen rows of the stalls were reserved for males: a custom which at the Variétés has survived from a more barbaric age, as the custom of the finger-bowl has survived in the repasts of the polite. The self-satisfied and self-conscious occupants of these rows seemed to summarise and illustrate all the various masculine stupidity of a great and proud city. To counterbalance this preponderance of the male, I could glimpse, behind the lath grilles of the cages called baignoires, the forms of women (each guarded) who I hope were incomparable. The sight of these grilles at once sent the mind to the seraglio, and the House of Commons, and other fastnesses of Orientalism.

The evening was interminable, not for me alone, but obviously for the majority of the audience. Impossible to describe the dull fortitude of the audience without being accused of wilful exaggeration! Only in the entr’actes, in the amplitude and dubious mystery of the entr’actes, did the audience arouse itself into the semblance of vivacity. There was but little complaining. Were we not at the Variétés? At the Variétés, to suffer was part of the entertainment. The French public is a public which accepts all in Christian meekness — all! It knows that it exists for the convenience of the bureaucracy and the theatres. It covers its cowardice under a mantle of philosophy and politeness. Its fierce protest is a shrug. “Que voulez-vous? C’est comme ça.

At last, at nearly half after midnight, we came forth, bitterly depressed, as usual, by the deep consciousness of futile waste. I could see, in my pre occupation, the whole organism of the Variétés, which is only the essence of the French theatre. A few artistes and a financier or so at the core, wilful, corrupt, self-indulgent, spoiled, venal, enormously unbusinesslike, incredibly cynical, luxurious in the midst of a crowd of miserable parasites and menials; creating for themselves, out of electric globes, and newspapers, and posters, and photographs, and the inexhaustible simplicity and sexuality of the public, a legend of artistic greatness. They make a frame, and hang a curtain in front of it, and put footlights beneath; and lo! the capricious manoeuvres of these mortals become the sacred, authoritative functioning of an institution! It was raining. The boulevard was a mirror. And along the reflecting surface of this mirror cab after cab, hundreds of cabs, rolled swiftly. Dozens and dozens were empty, and had no goal; but none would stop. They all went ruthlessly by with offensive gestures of disdain. Strangers cannot believe that when a Paris cabman without a fare re fuses to stop on a wet night, it is not because he is hoping for a client in richer furs, or because he is going to the stables, or because he has earned enough that night, or because he has an urgent appointment with his enchantress — but simply from malice. Nevertheless this is a psychological fact which any experienced Parisian will confirm. On a wet night the cabman revenges himself upon the bourgeoisie, though the base satisfaction may cost him money. As we waited, with many other princes of the earth who could afford to throw away a whole louis for a few hours’ relaxation, as we waited vainly in the wet for a cabman who would condescend, I could savour only one sensation — that of exasperating tedium completely achieved.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist and playwright. He lived in Paris from 1902 to 1912. The Théâtre des Variétés is a theatre in Montmartre, Paris, and features in the opening chapters of Emile Zola’s novel Nana.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At Home and Abroad

Rachel as Racine’s Phèdre, via Wikipedia

Source: Margaret Fuller Ossoli (ed. Arthur B. Fuller), At Home and Abroad; or, Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (New York: The Tribune Association, 1869 [orig. pub. 1956]), pp. 188-190

Productions: J.W. Marston, The Patrician’s Daughter, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 1848, and Jean Racine, Phèdre, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1848

Text: To turn to something a little gayer, – the embroidery on this tattered coat of civilized life, – I went into only two theatres; one the Old Drury, once the scene of great glories, now of execrable music and more execrable acting. If anything can be invented more excruciating than an English opera, such as was the fashion at the time I was in London, I am sure no sin of mine deserves the punishment of bearing it.

At the Sadler’s Wells theatre I saw a play which I had much admired in reading it, but found still better in actual representation; indeed, it seems to me there can be no better acting play: this is “The Patrician’s Daughter,” by J.W. Marston. The movement is rapid, yet clear and free; the dialogue natural, dignified, and flowing; the characters marked with few, but distinct strokes. Where the tone of discourse rises with manly sentiment or passion, the audience applauded with bursts of generous feeling that gave me great pleasure, for this play is one that, in its scope and meaning, marks the new era in England; it is full of an experience which is inevitable to a man of talent there, and is harbinger of the day when the noblest commoner shall be the only noble possible in England.

But how different all this acting to what I find in France! Here the theatre is living; you see something really good, and good throughout. Not one touch of that stage strut and vulgar bombast of tone, which the English actor fancies indispensable to scenic illusion, is tolerated here. For the first time in my life I saw something represented in a style uniformly good, and should have found sufficient proof, if I had needed any, that all men will prefer what is good to what is bad, if only a fair opportunity for choice be allowed. When I came here, my first thought was to go and see Mademoiselle Rachel. I was sure that in her I should find a true genius, absolutely the diamond, and so it proved. I went to see her seven or eight times, always in parts that required great force of soul and purity of taste even to conceive them, and only once had reason to find fault with her. On one single occasion I saw her violate the harmony of the character to produce effect at a particular moment; but almost invariably I found her a true artist, worthy Greece, and worthy at many moments to have her conceptions immortalized in marble.

Her range even in high tragedy is limited. She can only express the darker passions, and grief in its most desolate aspects. Nature has not gifted her with those softer and more flowery attributes that lend to pathos its utmost tenderness. She does not melt to tears, or calm or elevate the heart by the presence of that tragic beauty that needs all the assaults of Fate to make it show its immortal sweetness. Her noblest aspect is when sometimes she expresses truth in some severe shape, and rises, simple and austere, above the mixed elements around her. On the dark side, she is very great in hatred and revenge. I admired her more in Phèdre than in any other part in which I saw her. The guilty love inspired by the hatred of a goddess was expressed in all its symptoms with a force and terrible naturalness that almost suffocated the beholder. After she had taken the poison, the exhaustion and paralysis of the system, the sad, cold, calm submission to Fate, were still more grand.

I had heard so much about the power of her eye in one fixed look, and the expression she could concentrate in a single word, that the utmost results could only satisfy my expectations. It is, indeed, something magnificent to see the dark cloud live out such sparks, each one fit to deal a separate death; but it was not that I admired most in her: it was the grandeur, truth, and depth of her conception of each part, and the sustained purity with which she represented it.

For the rest, I shall write somewhere a detailed critique upon the parts in which I saw her. It is she who has made me acquainted with the true way of viewing French tragedy. I had no idea of its powers and symmetry till now, and have received from the revelation high pleasure and a crowd of thoughts.

The French language from her lips is a divine dialect; it is stripped of its national and personal peculiarities, and becomes what any language must, moulded by such a genius, – the pure music of the heart and soul. I never could remember her tone in speaking any word; it was too perfect; you had received the thought quite direct. Yet, had I never heard her speak a word, my mind would be filled by her attitudes. Nothing more graceful can be conceived, nor could the genius of sculpture surpass her management of the antique drapery.

She has no beauty except in the intellectual severity of her outline, and bears marks of age which will grow stronger every year, and make her ugly before long. Still it will be a grandiose, gypsy, or rather Sibylline ugliness, well adapted to the expression of some tragic parts. Only it seems as if she could not live long; she expends force enough upon a part to furnish out a dozen common lives.

Though the French tragedy is well acted throughout, yet unhappily there is no male actor now with a spark of fire, and these men seem the meanest pigmies by the side of Rachel; — so on the scene, beside the tragedy intended by the author, you see also that common tragedy, a woman of genius who throws away her precious heart, lives and dies for one unworthy of her. In parts this effect is productive of too much pain. I saw Rachel one night with her brother and sister. The sister imitated her so closely that you could not help seeing she had a manner, and an imitable manner. Her brother was in the play her lover, —a wretched automaton, and presenting the most unhappy family likeness to herself. Since then I have hardly cared to go and see her. We could wish with geniuses, as with the Phoenix, to see only one of the family at a time.

Comments: Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850), commonly known as Margaret Fuller, was an American feminist and journalist, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She travelled to Europe in 1846 for the New York Tribune, meeting in Italy her partner, the revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. John Westland Marston was a British poet and dramatist. Rachel (Elisa Félix) (1820-1858) was one of the great stars of the Comédie-Française, known especially for her performances in classical roles, including Racine‘s Phèdre. her sister Lia Félix was an actress and presumably the sister referred to here. Her brother was Raphael Félix.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Diary in the East During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales

The Khedivial Opera House, Cairo, in 1869, via Wikipedia

Source: William Howard Russell, A Diary in the East During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1869), pp. 114-116

Text: After dinner there was a performance at the theatre, to which the Prince and Princess and suite went. The Viceroy received them at the opera-house, and sat with them during the performance. It was not a theatre paré, but all the officers of state were present, and the house was tolerably well filled. In the pit there was an audience, most of them wearing the fez, a few the Coptic turban, others dressed in European fashion; no ladies. The boxes presented little to distinguish them, but for the intrusion of the inevitable tarboosh, and the quaint head-dress and faces of the negro servitors. Four boxes were set apart for the suite. Directly opposite the Prince and Princess were two large boxes, next the stage, in front of which was a lattice-work, from top to bottom, close and fine — so close, indeed, as to render it impossible for a searching opera-glass to pierce its mysteries. These boxes were not empty, for a certain variation of colour in the background, and a play of bright hues inside, showed that the ladies of the harem, nearly invisible to the outer world, were inside seeing everything. Was it because a gap at the lattice-work allowed a curious stranger to get a glimpse of a face within, that an envious mat was suddenly thrust into it by a black-faced, beardless gentleman in attendance? It is said that the Viceroy is meditating a great coup. That lattice-work is some day to disappear, and the ladies of the court are to sit unveiled in the presence of the people. But that day, from all I can hear, must be long distant. The pieces — “Le Serment d’Horace” and “Contributions Indirectes” — imported from the Palais Royal, seemed not unsuited to the Cairo audience. They took the points, laughed at the jokes, applauded the morceaux when the Viceroy deigned to nod; and if there was a little broadness of tone in dialogue and acting, there was certainly nothing of the wantonness of undress which we see at home in Christmas pantomimes. The theatre is about the size of the Haymarket. There is a café attached to it, a restaurant, a bouquetière, bills of the play, and a saloon where smokers congregate between the acts. And when you go out into the street, there is the fellah lying on the bare earth, wrapped in his cloak, and the wild dogs baying the moon, and the police calling out the Arab watchwords of the night.

Comments: William Howard Russell (1820-1907) was an Irish war reporter, famed for his dispatches from the Crimean War. In 1869 he accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward II and Queen Alexandra) on a visit to Egypt, which he covered in The Times and his subsequent book A Diary in the East. The plays they saw at the Khedivial Opera House were Henri Murger‘s Le Serment d’Horace and Les contributions indirectes by Henri Thiéry and Hippolyte Cogniard. The opera house had opened only recently (November 1869), having been built to mark the opening of the Suez Canal.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust