Boxes

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:

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

The Diary of H. M. the Shah of Persia

Source: J.W. Redhouse (trans.), The Diary of H. M. the Shah of Persia, during his tour through Europe in A.D. 1873 (London: J. Murray, 1874), pp. 126-128

Text: [15 June 1873] In the evening we went to the theatre on foot, which was very near to our hotel. Many women and men were congregated. The theatre is very small—less even than the one at Hajji-Tarkhan, but very pretty, with three tiers of seats, and with a handsome chandelier lighted with gas. The curtain rose. A number of men and women conversed in French, representing love, love-making, and the like. Afterwards an astonishing conjuror came forward,—a young man of short stature, who had a very graceful wife. His name was Kaznow. In French jugglery is called “prestidigitation.” He performed some astonishing tricks, so that one became dumb-foundered.

For example. He took the people’s watches out of their fobs, and without interfering in any way with their regulation—without even laying them down—he showed that all of them pointed, for instance, to three hours after sunset. He then opened them and showed them, when one watch pointed to four, another to eight, a third to two, and so on.

He opened a large padlock. He then locked it, and gave it to the Mu’tamadu-‘l-Mulk, who was sitting in a box near to him. The Mu’tamad again locked it himself, and essayed to force it open, but could not. He then passed the lock on to a stick, and gave the two ends of the stick to two persons to hold. He next asked of the Mu’tamad : “How many do you wish that I shall count, and that the lock shall come open as I name that number?” The Mu’tamad said: “Twelve.” The juggler counted this number out, one by one; and when, on his pronouncing the word “open,” in the place of “twelve,” the lock opened.

He performed also some surprising feats of hocus-pocus. The Mu’tamad wrote down something on a piece of paper, which the cdnjuror burnt in the presence of all. He then went and fetched a packet that was carefully sealed with wax, which he gave into the hands of the Mu’tamad. He broke open the packet, and found therein a second packet similarly sealed up, and so on until twenty sealed packets had been broken open. Enclosed within the last was the paper with the writing upon it which the Mu’tamad had written.

He placed four large coins one by one in a small box, and consigned this into the hands of one of the company. He then placed a table at some distance, on which stood a china vase. He now ordered the coins to come into the vase ; and one by one, as they passed from the box and fell into the vase, we heard them chink. When the box was empty, he, went and fetched the vase from its place, and the whole of the coins were found in it. Before placing the vase on the table, he had shown to the company that it had nothing in it. He performed also many other tricks, which I cannot here narrate.

He now brought forward his wife and seated her on a chair. She was a very pretty woman, and elegantly attired. He put her to sleep by sundry rubbings with his hands. When she was asleep, his wife gave information of absent things; as for instance, the Mu’tamad wrote down: “This is a fine evening.” The conjuror asked his wife what had been written, and she, in the most charming manner, repeated the very words.

Comments: Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896) was King of Persia from 1848 to his assassination in 1896. He visited Europe in 1873, 1878 and 1889. This extract from his travel diary records a visit to a theatre in Spa, Belgium on 15 June 1873. I have not been able to find anything on a magician named Kaznow.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of an Ennuyée

Source: Mrs Jameson, The Diary of an Ennuyée (Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1875), pp. 46-50 [originally published 1826 anonymously as A Lady’s Diary]

Production: Salvatore and Giulio Viganò, Didone, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 8-9 October 1821

Text: Last night and the preceding we spent at the Scala. The opera was stupid, and Madame Bellocchi, who is the present prima donna, appeared to me harsh and ungraceful, when compared to Fodor. The new ballet, however, amply indemnified us for the disappointment.

Our Italian friends condoled with us on being a few days too late to see La Vestale, which had been performed for sixty nights, and is one of Vigano’s masterpieces. I thought the Didone Abbandonata left us nothing to regret. The immense size of the stage, the splendid scenery, the classical propriety and magnificence of the dresses, the fine music, and the exquisite acting, (for there is very little dancing,) all conspired to render it enchanting. The celebrated cavern scene, in the fourth book of Virgil, is rather too closely copied in a most inimitable pas de deux; so closely, indeed, that I was considerably alarmed pour les bienséances; but little Ascanius, who is asleep in a corner, (Heaven knows how he came there,) wakes at the critical moment, and the impending catastrophe is averted. Such a scene, however beautiful, would not, I think, be endured on the English stage. I observed that when it began, the curtains in front of the boxes were withdrawn, the whole audience, who seemed to be expecting it, was hushed; the deepest silence, the most delighted attention prevailed during its performance; and the moment it was over, a third of the spectators departed. I am told this is always the case; and that in almost every ballet d’action, the public are gratified by a scene, or scenes, of a similar tendency.

The second time I saw the Didone, my attention, in spite of the fascination of the scene, was attracted towards a box near us, which was occupied by a noble English family just arrived at Milan. In the front of the box sat a beautiful girl, apparently not fifteen, with laughing lips and dimpled cheeks, the very personification of blooming, innocent, English loveliness. I watched her (I could not help it, when my interest was once awakened,) through the whole scene. I marked her increased agitation: I saw her cheeks flush, her eyes glisten, her bosom flutter, as if with sighs I could not overhear, till at length overpowered with emotion, she turned away her head, and covered her eyes with her hand. Mothers!—English mothers! who bring your daughters abroad to finish their education—do ye well to expose them to scenes like these, and force the young bud of early feeling in such a precious hot-bed as this? Can a finer finger on the piano,—a finer taste in painting, or any possible improvement in foreign arts, and foreign graces, compensate for one taint on that moral purity which has ever been (and may it ever be!) the boast, the charm of Englishwomen? But what have I to do with all this ?—I came here to be amused and to forget:—not to moralize, or to criticize.

Vigano, who is lately dead, composed the Didone Abbandonata, as well as La Vestale, Oteilo, Nina, and others. All his ballets are celebrated for their classical beauty and interest. This man, though but a dancing-master, must have had the soul of a painter, a musician, and a poet in one. He must have been a perfect master of design, grouping, contrast, picturesque, and scenic effect. He must have had the most exquisite feeling for musical expression, to adapt it so admirably to his purposes; and those gestures and movements with which he has so gracefully combined it, and which address themselves but too powerfully to the senses and the imagination— what are they, but the very “poetry of motion,” la poésie mise en action, rendering words a superfluous and feeble medium in comparison?

I saw at the mint yesterday the medal struck in honor of Vigano, bearing his head on one side, and on the other, Prometheus chained; to commemorate his famous ballet of that name. One of these medals, struck in gold, was presented to him in the name of the government:—a singular distinction for a dancing-master;—but Vigano was a dancing-master of genius: and this is the land where genius in every shape is deified.

The enchanting music of the Prometteo by Beethoven, is well known in England, but to produce the ballet on our stage, as it was exhibited here, would be impossible. The entire tribe of our dancers and figurantes, with their jumpings, twirlings, quiverings, and pirouettings, must be first annihilated; and Vigano, or Didelot, or Noverre rise again to inform the whole corps de ballet with another soul and the whole audience with another spirit:—for

—’ Poiche paga il volgo sciocco, i giusto
Soioccamente ‘ballar‘ per dargli gusto.”

The Theatre of the Scala, notwithstanding the vastness of my expectations, did not disappoint me. I heard it criticized as being dark and gloomy; for only the stage is illuminated: but when 1 remember how often I have left our English theatres with dazzled eyes and aching head,—distracted by the multiplicity of objects and faces, and “blasted with excess of light,”—I feel reconciled to this peculiarity; more especially as it heightens beyond measure the splendor of the stage effect.

Comments: Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860) was an Anglo-Irish art historian. In the early 1820s, when Anna Murphy, she travelled to Italy and her diary of the visit was published anonymously, to great interest, as A Lady’s Diary. Salvatore Viganò was an Italian choreographer and composer, whose final work Didone (he died in 1821) was completed by his brother Giulio.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Pantomime

Source: ‘The Pantomime – Boxes, Pit and Gallery’, Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News, 16 January 1869

Comments: The Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News was a British newspaper of the 1860s which reported on sports of all kinds and theatre productions. It was notable for its illustrations from wood engravings. The name of the artist of this illustration is not given.

The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), vol. 2, pp. 58-59

Text: As we passed the theatre we decided to enter, and hear Miss Stephens sing Scotch ballads to a Scottish audience. Much to our surprise we found the theatre so empty that we obtained seats in the front row. This led to some conversation afterwards relative to the sobriety in the search for amusement which is so characteristic of the people of Edinburgh. Some years ago Catalani gave a concert here. Every place was crowded, and she reaped a rich harvest. The next year she was tempted to come again, and the contrast was most striking; no one who had heard her before went again. When asked the reason, they replied that they had heard her. There was no satire in this, for the same thing occurred with Miss O’Neill. I saw her play, literally, to empty benches, and was able to obtain a seat in the front row. This is the more remarkable, as at her first visit the pressure was so great that people were fainting. All the boxes had been taken previous to her arrival in Edinburgh. I never admired Miss Stephens so much as on this occasion. The small theatre was favourable to her articulation, and I did not lose a word of that pathetic ballad “Auld Robin Gray,” which was rapturously encored, and no wonder, for she sings it with a degree of pathos difficult to describe. There was not a note, nor an intonation, which did not express in its fullest sense the pure feelings and sentiments of that most exquisite piece of poetry. I have always been of opinion that “Auld Robin Gray” affords the best example of female virtue, based on principle and sensibility, to be found in the English language. In a pure mind, like Lady Anne Lindsay’s, the spear of Ithuriel would instantly dissipate the sophism of Rousseau, and depict in their true colours and in their natural deformity the vaunted perfections of his Héloïse.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. Catherine Stephens, Countess of Essex (1794-1822) was an English concert and opera singer and actress. Eliza O’Neill was an English tragic actress (1791-1872). ‘Auld Robin Gray’ is a ballad by Lady Anne Lindsay. The Edinburgh theatre was presumably the Theatre Royal in Princes Street.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Remarks on Our Theatres

Source: Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Remarks on Our Theatres’, The Bee no. 1, 6 October 1759, reproduced in Essays and The Bee (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1820), pp. 11-17

Production: Henry Fielding, The Miser, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 September 1759 and Henry Fielding, The Mock Doctor, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 25 September 1759

Text: Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub-street is preparing its advice to the managers; we shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor’s legs, and another’s eye-brows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes, and shall have our lightest pleasures commented upon by didactic dulness. We shall, it is feared, be told, that Garrick is a fine actor, but then, as a manager, so avaricious! That Palmer is a most surprising genius, and Holland likely to do well in a particular cast of character. We shall have them giving Shuter instructions to amuse us by rule, and deploring over the ruins of desolated majesty at Covent-Garden. As I love to be advising too, for advice is easily given, and bears a show of wisdom and superiority, I must be permitted to offer a few observations upon our theatres and actors, without, on this trivial occasion, throwing my thoughts into the formality of method.

There is something in the deportment of all our players infinitely more stiff and formal than among the actors of other nations. Their action sits uneasy upon them; for as the English use very little gesture in ordinary conversation, our English-bred actors are obliged to supply stage gestures by their imagination alone. A French comedian finds proper models of action in every company and in every coffee house he enters. An Englishman is obliged to take his models from the stage itself; he is obliged to imitate nature from an imitation of nature. I know of no set of men more likely to be improved by travelling than those of the theatrical profession. The inhabitants of the continent are less reserved than here; they may be seen through upon a first acquaintance; such are the proper models to draw from; they are at once striking, and are found in great abundance.

Though it would he inexcuseable in a comedian to add any thing of his own to the poet’s dialogue, yet as to action he is entirely at liberty. By this he may show the fertility of his genius, the poignancy of his humour, and the exactness of his judgment; we scarcely see a coxcomb or a fool in common life that has not some peculiar oddity in his action. These peculiarities it is not in the power of words to represent, and they depend solely upon the actor. They give a relish to the humour of the poet, and make the appearance of nature more illusive; the Italians, it is true, mask some characters, and endeavour to preserve the peculiar humour by the make of the mask; but I have seen others still preserve a great fund of humour in the face without a mask; one actor, particularly, by a squint which he threw into some characters of low life, assumed a look of infinite stolidity. This, though upon reflection we might condemn, yet immediately upon representation we could not avoid being pleased with. To illustrate what I have been saying by the plays I have of late gone to see; in the Miser, which was played a few nights ago at Covent Garden, Lovegold appears through the whole in circumstances of exaggerated avarice; all the player’s action, therefore, should conspire with the poet’s design, and represent him as an epitome of penury. The French comedian, in this character, in the midst of one of his most violent passions, while he appears in an ungovernable rage, feels the demon of avarice still upon him, and stoops down to pick up a pin, which he quilts into the flap of his coat-pocket with great assiduity. Two candles are lighted up for his wedding; he flies, and turns one of them into the socket; it is, however, lighted up again; he then steals to it, and privately crams it into his pocket. The Mock-Doctor was lately played at the other house. Here again the comedian had an opportunity of heightening the ridicule by action. The French player sits in a chair with a high back, and then begins to show away by talking nonsense, which he would have thought Latin by those who he knows do not understand a syllable of the matter. At last he grows enthusiastic, enjoys the admiration of the company, tosses his legs and arms about, and in the midst of his raptures and vociferation, he and the chair fall back together. All this appears dull enough in the recital; but the gravity of Cato could not stand it in the representation. In short, there is hardly a character in comedy, to which a player of any real humour might not add strokes of vivacity that could not fail of applause. But instead of this we too often see our fine gentlemen do nothing through a whole part, but strut, and open their snuff-box; our pretty fellows sit indecently with their legs across, and our clowns pull up their breeches. These, if once or even twice repeated, might do well enough; but to see them served up in every scene argues the actor almost as barren as the character he would expose.

The magnificence of our theatres is far superior to any others in Europe, where plays only are acted. The great care our performers take in painting for a part, their exactness in all the minutiae of dress, and other little scenical proprieties, have been taken notice of by Ricoboni, a gentleman of Italy, who travelled Europe with no other design but to remark upon the stage; but there are several improprieties still continued, or lately come into fashion. As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes; this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow; for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury-lane. Our little pages also with unmeaning faces, that bear up the train of a weeping princess, and our awkward lords in waiting, take off much from her distress. Mutes of every kind divide our attention, and lessen our sensibility; but here it is entirely ridiculous, as we see them seriously employed in doing nothing. If we must have dirty-shirted guards upon the theatres, they should be taught to keep their eyes fixed on the actors, and not roll them round upon the audience, as if they were ogling the boxes.

Beauty methinks seems a requisite qualification in an actress. This seems scrupulously observed elsewhere, and for my part I could wish to see it observed at home. I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural, for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity, and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste, will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when for instance we see an actress that might act the Wapping Landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore, and while unwieldly with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger!

For the future, then, I could wish that the parts of the young or beautiful were given to performers of suitable figures; for I must own, I could rather see the stage filled with agreeable objects, though they might sometimes bungle a little, than see it crowded with withered or mis-shapen figures, be their emphasis, as I think it is called, ever so proper. The first may have the awkward appearance of new-raised troops; but in viewing the last I cannot avoid the mortification of fancying myself placed in an hospital of invalids.

Comments: Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was an Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic. The Bee was a periodical that he published himself. The Miser and The Mock Doctor were plays by Henry Fielding, both adapted from Molière. Antoine-François Riccoboni was an Italian actor whose treatise L’Art dit Théâtre was published in 1750.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Two Hundred and Nine Days

Source: Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Two Hundred and Nine Days; or, The Journal of a Traveller on the Continent (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1827), pp. 246-247

Production: Gioachino Rossini, Maometto II [probably], Milan, 31 January 1826

Text: 31 January [1826]: In the evening I visited the Scala, a most spacious and magnificent theatre; well lighted and commodious; the silk curtains in front of the boxes are handsome and useful; they may be drawn close, and the tired spectator may go to sleep, as safely as if he were in bed, without shocking public decency, or impeaching his good taste; and by means of this humane and elegant contrivance, he may be supposed to be enraptured all the time by the performance, and thrown into an ecstacy [sic] by the music: an amateur may even gain credit for attending a whole season, without ever leaving his fire-side, by merely giving the box-keeper a shilling to pin the curtains together once for all. If the curtains were all of the same colour, perhaps the appearance would be better; in one tier of boxes they are yellow, in the other blue alternately. The opera was Mahomet; the ballet was splendid; afterwards was a masked ball, but I did not stay to witness it.

Comments: Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862) was an English lawyer and writer, a close friend of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He went on a continental tour of Europe over 1825-26 and his published diaries record many visits to the theatre in different countries. La Scala, or Teatro alla Scala opera house, was inaugurated in 1778. The opera he saw was presumably Rossini‘s two -act work Maometto II (1820).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Daniel Webster in England

Source: Edward Gray (ed.), Daniel Webster in England: Journal of Harriette Story Paige, 1839 (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), pp. 72-73

Production: William Shakespeare, Henry V, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 29 June 1839

Text: In the evening by particular request, and invitation from Macready the actor, we went accompanied by Colonel Webb, of New York, and Captain Stockton to witness the representation of Shakspeare’s play of King Henry V. Mr. Webster had gone to the House of Lords, and contrary to our expectations, did not get to “Covent Garden” for the evening. This play has been restored by Macready, who takes the part of the King, his performance was admirable; too much cannot be said in praise of his unwearied efforts to restore the British drama to its former reputation and eminence. The King is seen in the play, to embark from England at the Tower Stairs, with his Court, retinue &c., then the Cliffs of Dover are seen, and the whole fleet appears sailing onward. The sun sets, the moon rises, finally, the French coast of Boulogne is visible, and gradually becomes more distinct. The bombardment takes place, then clouds appear, roll over, and conceal all. Then comes a prologue, or “chorus,” spoken by a figure, dressed as Time; he keeps the spectators informed of all the events that have occurred, and behind him, is a pictorial exhibition, of these scenes occurring, so skilfully managed that it seems reality. After this, the clouds disappear and the actors are again visible, but before each act, Time with his chorus appears, and from him we learn the course of events. Covent Garden is a spacious, large theatre; our box was on a level with the orchestra, and below the stage, but so near to it, that our opportunity for enjoying this novel play, was particularly good.

Comments: Harriette Story Page (1806-1863) was the sister-in-law of the American politician Daniel Webster. She accompanied him of his European visit in 1839. The production she saw of Henry V at Covent Garden starred William Macready, with scenery and dioramas designed by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield. Part of what Macready ‘restored’ to the play was the part of the Chorus, cur from earlier productions.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust