Audiences

American in Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Source: Franz Kafka (ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948), pp. 79-82

Production: Joseph Lateiner, Der Meshumed, Café Savoy, Prague, 4 October 1911

Text: October 5 … Last night Café Savoy. Yiddish troupe. Mrs. K., “male impersonator.” In a caftan, short black trousers, white stockings, from the black vest a thin white woolen shirt emerges that is held in front at the throat by a knot and then flares into a wide, loose, long, spreading collar. On her head, confining her woman’s hair but necessary anyhow and worn by her husband as well, a dark, brimless skull cap, over it a large, soft black hat with a turned-up brim.

I really don’t know what sort of person it is that she and her husband represent. If I wanted to explain them to someone to whom I didn’t want to confess my ignorance, I should find that I consider them sextons, employees of the temple, notorious lazybones with whom the community has come to terms, privileged shnorrers for some religious reason, people who, precisely as a result of their being set apart, are very close to the center of the community’s life, know many songs as a result of their useless wandering about and spying, see clearly to the core the relationship of all the members of the community, but as a result of their lack of relatedness to the workaday world don’t know what to do with this knowledge, people who are Jews in an especially pure form because they live only in the religion, but live in it without effort, understanding or distress. They seem to make a fool of everyone, laugh immediately after the murder of a noble Jew, sell themselves to an apostate, dance with their hands on their earlocks in delight when the unmasked murderer poisons himself and calls upon God, and yet all this only because they are as light as a feather, sink to the ground under the slightest pressure, are sensitive, cry easily with dry faces (they cry themselves out in grimaces), but as soon as the pressure is removed haven’t the slightest specific gravity but must bounce right back up in the air.

They must have caused a lot of difficulty in a serious play, such as Der Meshumed by Lateiner is, for they are forever – large as life and often on tiptoe or with both feet in the air – at the front of the stage and do not unravel but rather cut apart the suspense of the play. The seriousness of the play spins itself out, however, in words so compact, carefully considered even where possibly improvised, so full of the tension of a unified emotion, that even when the plot is going along only at the rear of the stage, it always keeps its meaning. Rather, the two in caftans are suppressed now and then, which befits their nature, and despite their extended arms and snapping fingers one sees behind them only the murderer, who, the poison in him, his hand at his really too large collar, is staggering to the door.

The melodies are long, one’s body is glad to confide itself to them. As a result of their long-drawn-out forward movement, the melodies are best expressed by a swaying of the hips, by raising and lowering extended arms in a calm rhythm, by bringing the palms close to the temples and taking care not to touch them. Suggests the šlapák

The talmudic melody of minute questions, adjurations or explanations: The air moves into a pipe and takes the pipe along, and a great screw, proud in its entirety, humble in its turns, twists from small, distant beginnings in the direction of the one who is questioned.

October 6. The two old men up front at the long table near the stage. One leans both his arms on the table and has only his face (whose false, bloated redness with an irregular, square, matted beard beneath it sadly conceals his old age) turned up to the right toward the stage, while the other, directly opposite the stage, holds his face, which old age has made quite dry, back away from the table on which he leans only with his left arm, holding his right arm bent in the air in order better to enjoy the melody that his fingertips follow and to which the short pipe in his right hand weakly yields. “Tateleben, come on and sing,” cries the woman now to one, now to the other, at the same time stooping a little and stretching her arms forward encouragingly.

The melodies are made to catch hold of every person who jumps up and they can, without breaking down, encompass all his excitement even if one won’t believe they have inspired it. The two in caftans are particularly in a hurry to meet the singing, as though it were stretching their body according to its most essential needs, and the clapping of the hands during the singing is an obvious sign of the good health of the man in the actor. The children of the landlord, in a corner of the stage, remain children in their relationship to Mrs. K. and sing along, their mouths, between their pursed lips, full of the melody.

Comments: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, author of ‘Die Verwandlung’ (‘The Metamorphosis’) and Der Process (The Trial). He first encountered Yiddish theatre in his home city of Prague in 1910, and between September 1911 and January 1912 documented in his diary his close interest in a Yiddish theatre group that performed at the Café Savoy. The entertainments were a mixture of songs, turns, jokes and plays. The play Kafka saw was the prolific Yiddish playwright Joseph Lateiner‘s Der Meshumed (The Apostate). His impressions were recorded over two day entries in his diary, and he goes on to describe the action of the play in great detail. Mrs K was the actress Flora, or Florence, Klug. A šlapák was a type of dance. Kafka’s diary reveals how the theatre troupe affected his imagination and his dreams, with elements of this helping to inform his subsequent novels.

Links:
Guido Massino, ‘Franz Kafka’s Vagabond Stars’, Digital Yiddish Theatre Project

Arms and the Woman

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

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

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

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

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.

Journal 1935-1944

Source: Mihail Sebastian (trans. Patrick Camiller), Journal 1935-1944 (London: Pimlico, 2003, orig. pub. 1996), pp. 188-189

Production: Mihail Sebastian, Jocul de-a vacanţa, Comoedia theatre, Bucharest, 17 October 1938

Text: Monday, 17 [October 1938]

Sunday evening’s performance was the last performance. They’ve played the dirty trick of putting Ionescu G. Maria back on for the last two days before the tour, yesterday and today. So now the impression is given that I’ve been taken down from the boards and replaced with an old play – as if it would have been such a disaster to keep me on for another couple of days! For a moment I was quite indignant. But then it passed. In the end, I don’t want to make a tragedy out of anything that’s happened to me at the theatre.

It’s been an adventure – and now it’s over. I didn’t gain a lot from it, nor did I lose much.

On Saturday evening, at the last performance but one, I watched the whole play for the first time since the Sunday immediately after the premiere. I’ve seen bits of each act at various times, depending on when I dropped by the theatre on my way back from the cinema or to see Leni. But I have only twice seen the play from beginning to end. I’m used to it by now, and it is almost impossible for me to judge it. The image of this production has almost completely covered the image I originally had of it. At first the differences between my conception and the stage performance were quite glaring. Little by little, however, the actors’ gestures (even if they were wrong) and their tones of voice (even if they were false) substituted themselves for what I had imagined at the time of writing. Sometimes I’d have liked to protest, to get them back on the right track, to restore my original text, to force them to act the play I actually wrote – but it would have meant too great an effort, and I wasn’t even sure it was worth it.

On Sunday evening I again watched the third act – for the last time! I was in the balcony, from where the stage appears far off and for that very reason somehow magical, and sometimes I shut my eyes to listen the words. Maybe it was the thought that this really was the last time, that none of these words would be spoken again, that they would remain in a typewritten file or, at best, in a printed book – maybe all these thoughts, with their sense of leave-taking, made me listen with emotion for the first time. I said to myself that something was dying, departing forever, breaking loose from me. Never again will I see the audience’s heads turned toward the stage, in the silence of an occupied auditorium, in the darkness broken only by the footlights, listening, taking in, echoing, answering the words written by me. Never again will I hear that laughter rise in warm animation toward the stage.

Next to me a girl was crying. She is the last girl who will cry for Jocul de-a vacanţa.

Comments: Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was the pen-name of the Jewish Romanian playwright and noveliest Iosif Hechter. Sebastian’s journal, not published until 1996 – when it gained huge acclaim – records the rise of Fascism in Romania through to the Second World War, the fall of the dictator Ion Antonescu’s fascist government on 23 August 1944, and Romania joining the Allies. Sebastian suffered from anti-Semitic persecution, but survived the war, only to die in a motor accident in May 1945. Jocul de-a vacanţa, or Holiday Games, was his first play. He was romantically involved with actress Leni Caler, who appeared in the production.

The Diary of an American Physician in the Russian Revolution

Source: Orrin Sage Wightman, The Diary of an American Physician in the Russian Revolution (Brooklyn, NY: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1928), pp. 116-117

Text: September 19th, 1917

… I had a wonderful treat in going to a little theatre where they have Russian plays and real Russian people. We made up a party including the Captain, the Princess Kropotkin, Madame Morosoff and two gentlemen, one a Frenchman and the other a Caucasian Prince.

The theatre was on a side street. It did not have a conspicuous entrance and there was a total absence of light. Entering a door of modest proportion, we went down a long runway with a queerly painted side wall. The colors were Russian and the figures were grotesque. This narrow entrance hall led to a sort of big vestibule where there were maids in attendance who took the coats and the boots, etc. From the second vestibule we entered the theatre proper. It had a wooden, arched ceiling, rather low and with a tier of boxes on the first half story. The aisles, which run from the back of the theatre to the stage, had tables extending full length, and at these tables people were able to obtain refreshments and watch the performance. The stage was very diminutive, but the scenery and costumes were of the best. The materials looked fresh and the goods were the real thing without tinsel. It was a marked change from the poverty of material in the stores and the street. The audience was quite intelligent, with a good representation of the Russian higher classes. In fact, it was the first time and place that I have seen so many of the aristocracy at one time.

The Princess Kropotkin is a slim, blue-eyed woman of about thirty-four or thirty-five, a most attractive Russian, but sad and discouraged with the poor showing the soldiers are making. She is extremely interested in the Red Cross and wears many decorations as a result of her work at the Front. There was, she said, a funeral this afternoon among her women’s soldiers. It seems that while one of them was riding on a trolley, and doing as many of them do in the crowded condition of traffic, clinging to the back rail and hanging on, an officer who wished her place, took her hands from the rail so that she fell under the trolley and was killed.

The plays were short sketches, performed by artists who did single acts in comedy, all in excellent taste and well appreciated by those who could understand. Even with my ignorance of Russian, I could almost interpret them from the gestures and expression. The singing was good and the voices fresh. The play was a short one, interpreting a poem by Pushkin, the famous Russian poet.

Comments: Orrin Sage Wightman (1873-1965) was an American doctor who in 1917 went on an American Red Cross medical mission to Russia, taking photographs and films of his time there. Princess Alexandra Kropoktkin was the daughter of the anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust