Curtains

Notes of a Journey through France and Italy

Mademoiselle Mars as Célimène in Le Misanthrope, n.d., via Gallica

Source: William Hazlitt, Notes of a Journey through France and Italy (London: Printed for Hunt and Clarke, 1826), pp. 114-125 (originally published in the Morning Chronicle, 17 November 1824)

Production: Molière, Le Misanthrope, Comédie-Française, Paris, November 1824

Text: MADEMOISELLE MARS (of whom so much has been said) quite comes up to my idea of an accomplished comic actress. I do not know that she does more than this, or imparts a feeling of excellence that we never had before, and are at a loss how to account for afterwards (as was the case with our Mrs. Jordan and Mrs. Siddons in opposite departments,) but she answers exactly to a preconception in the mind, and leaves nothing wanting to our wishes. I had seen nothing of the kind on our stage for many years, and my satisfaction was the greater, as I had often longed to see it. The last English actress who shone in genteel comedy was Miss Farren, and she was just leaving the stage when I first became acquainted with it. She was said to be a faint copy of Mrs. Abington—but I seem to see her yet, glittering in the verge of the horizon, fluttering, gay, and airy, the “elegant turn of her head,” the nodding plume of feathers, the gloves and fan, the careless mien, the provoking indifference—we have had nothing like it since, for I cannot admit that Miss O’Neil had the Lady-Teazle air at all. Out of tragedy she was awkward and heavy. She could draw out a white, patient, pathetic pocket-handkerchief with great grace and simplicity; she had no notion of flirting a fan. The rule here is to do every thing without effort—

– – “Flavia the least and slightest toy
Can with resistless art employ.”

This art is lost among us; the French still have it in very considerable perfection. Really, it is a fine thing to see Molière’s Misanthrope, at the Theatre Français, with Mademoiselle Mars as Celimène. I had already seen some very tolerable acting at the minor French Theatres, but I remained sceptical; I still had my English scruples hanging about me, nor could I get quite reconciled to the French manner. For mannerism is not excellence. It might be good, but I was not sure of it. Whatever one hesitates about in this way, is not the best. If a thing is first-rate, you see it at once, or the fault is yours. True genius will always get the better of our local prejudices, for it has already surmounted its own. For this reason, one becomes an immediate convert to the excellence of the French school of serious comedy. Their actors have lost little or nothing of their spirit, tact, or skill in embodying the wit and sense of their favourite authors. The most successful passages do not interfere with our admiration of the best samples of English acting, or run counter to our notions of propriety. That which we thought well done among ourselves, we here see as well or better done; that which we thought defective, avoided. The excellence or even superiority of the French over us only confirms the justness of our taste. If the actor might feel some jealousy, the critic can feel none. What Englishman does not read Molière with pleasure? Is it not a treat then to see him well acted? There is nothing to recall our national antipathies, and we are glad to part with such unpleasant guests.

The curtain is scarcely drawn up, when something of this effect is produced in the play I have mentioned, and the entrance of Mademoiselle Mars decides it. Her few first simple sentences—her “Mon Ami” at her lover’s first ridiculous suggestion, the mingled surprise, displeasure, and tenderness in the tone—her little peering eyes, full of languor and archness of meaning—the peaked nose and thin compressed lips, opening into an intelligent, cordial smile—her self-possession—her slightest gesture—the ease and rapidity of her utterance, every word of which is perfectly distinct—the playful, wondering good-nature with which she humours the Misanthrope’s eccentricities throughout, and the finer tone of sense and feeling in which she rejects his final proposal, must stamp her a favourite with the English as well as with the French part of the audience. I cannot see why that should not be the case. She is all life and spirit. Would we be thought entirely without them? She has a thorough understanding and relish of her author’s text. So, we think, have we. She has character, expression, decision—they are the very things we pique ourselves upon. Ease, grace, propriety—we aspire to them, if we have them not. She is free from the simagrées, the unmeaning petulance and petty affectation that we reproach the French with, and has none of the awkwardness, insipidity, or vulgarity that we are so ready to quarrel with at home. It would be strange if the English did not admire her as much as they profess to do. I have seen but one book of travels in which she was abused, and that was written by a Scotchman! Mademoiselle Mars is neither handsome nor delicately formed. She has not the light airy grace, nor the evanescent fragility of appearance that distinguished Miss Farren, but more point and meaning, or more of the intellectual part of comedy.

She was admirably supported in Celimène. Monsieur Damas played the hero of the Misanthrope, and played it with a force and natural freedom which I had no conception of as belonging to the French stage. If they drawl out their tragic rhymes into an endless sing-song, they cut up their comic verses into mincemeat. The pauses, the emphasis, are left quite ad libitum, and are as sudden and varied as in the most familiar or passionate conversation. In Racine they are obliged to make an effort to get out of themselves, and are solemn and well-behaved; in Molière they are at home, and commit all sorts of extravagances with wonderful alacrity and effect. Heroes in comedy, pedants in tragedy, they are greatest on small occasions; and their most brilliant efforts arise out of the ground of common life. Monsieur Damas’s personification of the Misanthrope appeared to me masterly. He had apparently been chosen to fill the part for his ugliness; but he played the lover and the fanatic with remarkable skill, nature, good-breeding, and disordered passion. The rapidity, the vehemence of his utterance and gestures, the transitions from one feeling to another, the fond rapture, the despair, the rage, the sarcastic coolness, the dignified contempt, were much in the style of our most violent tragic representations, and such as we do not see in our serious comedy or in French tragedy. The way in which this philosophic madman gave a loose to the expression of his feelings, when he first suspects the fidelity of his mistress, when he quarrels with her, and when he is reconciled to her, was strikingly affecting. It was a regular furious scolding-bout, with the ordinary accompaniments of tears, screams, and hysterics. A comic actor with us would have made the part insipid and genteel; a tragic one with them pompous and affected. At Drury-lane, Mr. Powell would take the part. Our fine gentlemen are walking suits of clothes; their tragic performers are a professor’s gown and wig: the Misanthrope of Molière, as Monsieur Damas plays it, is a true orator and man, of genius. If they pour the oil of decorum over the loftier waves of tragedy, their sentimental comedy is like a puddle in a storm. The whole was admirably cast, and ought to make the English ashamed of themselves, if they are not above attending to any thing that can give pleasure to themselves or other people. Arsinoe, the friend and rival of Celimène, was played by Madame –, a ripe, full-blown beauty, a prude, the redundancies of whose person and passions are kept in due bounds by tight lacing and lessons of morality. Eliante was a Mademoiselle Menjaud, a very amiable-looking young person, and exactly fitted to be an elève in this School for Scandal. She smiled and blushed and lisped mischief in the prettiest manner imaginable. The man who comes to read his Sonnet to Alceste was inimitable. His teeth had an enamel, his lips a vermilion, his eyes a brilliancy, his smile a self-complacency, such as never met in poet or in peer, since Revolutions and Reviews came into fashion. He seemed to have been preserved in a glass-case for the last hundred and fifty years, and to have walked out of it in these degenerate days, dressed in brocade, in smiles and self-conceit, to give the world assurance of what a Frenchman was! Philinte was also one of those prosing confidants, with grim features, and profound gravity, that are to be found in all French plays, and who, by their patient attention to a speech of half an hour long, acquire an undoubted right to make one of equal length in return. When they were all drawn up in battle-array, in the scene near the beginning, which Sheridan has copied, it presented a very formidable aspect indeed, and the effect was an historical deception. You forgot you were sitting at a play at all, and fancied yourself transported to the court or age of Louis XIV.!—Blest period —the triumph of folly and of France, when, instead of poring over systems of philosophy, the world lived in a round of impertinence—when to talk nonsense was wit, to listen to it politeness—when men thought of nothing but themselves, and turned their heads with dress instead of the affairs of Europe—when the smile of greatness was felicity, the smile of beauty Elysium—and when men drank the brimming nectar of self-applause, instead of waiting for the opinion of the reading public! Who would not fling himself back to this period of idle enchantment? But as we cannot, the best substitute for it is to see a comedy of Molière’s acted at the Theatre Français. The thing is there imitated to the life.

After all, there is something sufficiently absurd and improbable in this play. The character from which it takes its title is not well made out. A misanthrope and a philanthropist are the same thing, as Rousseau has so well shewn in his admirable criticism on this piece. Besides, what can be so nationally characteristic as the voluntary or dramatic transfers of passion in it! Alceste suspects his mistress’s truth, and makes an abrupt and violent declaration of love to another woman in consequence, as if the passion (in French) went along with the speech, and our feelings could take any direction at pleasure which we bethought ourselves of giving them. And then again, when after a number of outrages and blunders committed by himself, he finds he is in the wrong, and that he ought to be satisfied with Celimène and the world, which turns out no worse than he always thought it; he takes, in pure spite and the spirit of contradiction, the resolution to quit her forever, unless she will agree to go and live with him in a wilderness. This is not misanthropy, but sheer “midsummer madness.” It is a mere idle abstract determination to be miserable, and to make others so, and not the desperate resource of bitter disappointment (for he has received none) nor is it in the least warranted by the proud indignation of a worthy sensible man at the follies of the world (which character Alceste is at first represented to be.) It is a gratuitous start of French imagination, which is still in extremes, and ever in the wrong. Why, I would ask, must a man be either a mere courtier and man of the world, pliant to every custom, or a mere enthusiast and maniac, absolved from common sense and reason? Why could not the hero of the piece be a philosopher, a satirist, a railer at mankind in general, and yet marry Celimène, with whom he is in love, and who has proved herself worthy of his regard? The extravagance of Timon is tame and reasonable to this, for Timon had been ruined by his faith in mankind, whom he shuns. Yet the French would consider Timon as a very farouche and outré sort of personage. To be hurried into extremities by extreme suffering and wrong, is with them absurd and shocking: to play the fool without a motive or in virtue of making a set speech, they think in character and keeping. So far, to be sure, we differ in the first principles of dramatic composition. A similar remark might be made on the Tartuffe. This character is detected over and over again in acts of the most barefaced profligacy and imposture; he makes a fine speech on the occasion, and Orgon very quietly puts the offence in his pocket. This credulity to verbal professions would be tolerated on no stage but the French, as natural or probable. Plain English practical good sense would revolt at it as a monstrous fiction. But the French are so fond of hearing themselves talk, that they take a sort of interest (by proxy) in whatever affords an opportunity for an ingenious and prolix harangue, and attend to the dialogue of their plays, as they might to the long-winded intricacies of a law-suit. Mr. Bartolino Saddletree would have assisted admirably at a genuine prosing French Comedy.

Mademoiselle Mars played also in the afterpiece, a sort of shadowy Catherine and Petruchio. She is less at home in the romp than in the fine lady. She did not give herself up to the “whole loosened soul” of farce, nor was there the rich laugh, the sullen caprice, the childish delight and astonishment in the part, that Mrs. Jordan would have thrown into it. Mrs. Orger would have done it almost as well. There was a dryness and restraint, as if there was a constant dread of running into caricature. The outline was correct, but the filling up was not bold or luxuriant. There is a tendency in the lighter French comedy to a certain jejuneness of manner, such as we see in lithographic prints. They do not give full swing to the march of the humour, just as in their short, tripping walk they seem to have their legs tied. Madame Marsan is in this respect superior. There was an old man and woman in the same piece, in whom the quaint drollery of a couple of veteran retainers in the service of a French family was capitally expressed. The humour of Shakspeare’s play, as far as it was extracted, hit very well.—The behaviour of the audience throughout exemplary. There was no crowd at the door, though the house was as full as it could hold; and indeed most of the places are bespoke, whenever any of their standard pieces are performed. The attention never flags; and the buzz of eager expectation and call for silence, when the curtain draws up, is just the same as with us when an Opera is about to be performed, or a song to be sung. A French audience are like flies caught in treacle. Their wings are clogged, and it is all over with their friskings and vagaries. Their bodies and their minds set at once. They have, in fact, a national theatre and a national literature, which we have not. Even well-informed people among us hardly know the difference between Otway and Shakspeare; and if a person has a fancy for any of our elder classics, he may have it to himself for what the public cares. The French, on the contrary, know and value their best authors. They have Molière and Racine by heart—they come to their plays as to an intellectual treat; and their beauties are reflected in a thousand minds around you, as you see your face at every turn in the Café des Milles-Colonnes. A great author or actor is really in France what one fancies them in England, before one knows any thing of the world as it is called. It is a pity we should set ourselves up as the only reading or reflecting people—ut lucus a non lucendo. But we have here no oranges in the pit, no cry of porter and cider, no jack-tars to encore Mr. Braham three times in “The Death of Abercrombie,” and no play-bills. This last is a great inconvenience to strangers, and is what one would not expect from a play-going people; though it probably arises from that very circumstance, as they are too well acquainted with the actors and pieces to need a prompter. They are not accidental spectators, but constant visitors, and may be considered as behind the scenes.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. His Notes of a Journey through France and Italy records his impressions of a tour of Europe (not just France and Italy) made in 1824-25. It was based on articles Hazlitt wrote for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. His visit to the Théâtre-Français (Comédie-Française) to see Molière‘s Le Misanthrope took place around November 1824. The afterpiece was a reduction of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which Hazlitt says was similar to David Garrick’s Catherine and Petruchio but which was presumably not actually that work. The performers described include Mademoiselle Mars and Alexandre-Martial-Auguste Damas.

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. 72-73

Text: [Saturday, 10 December 1825] I visited in the evening a theatre, named Teatro del Fondo; there was an opera and a ballet; the performance was good, the house commodious, and the price of admission moderate; but great was the smell of garlic. At a small theatre this was to be expected; for at the great theatre of S. Carlo, I had complained, that my place was too remote, and was brought much nearer the stage amongst a higher order of beings into a sort of fops-alley; but the fops smelt so strong of garlic, that it was difficult to live in the atmosphere of this more refined society. I had frequent examples of what I had heard before, that when the Italians are pleased with a performance, they hiss, to command silence and attention; the opera, and especially the ballet, were received this evening with much hissing, that is, they gave great satisfaction. At the end of the ballet, the audience called for the ballet-master; the curtain was drawn up immediately, and a melancholy man in a suit of black was led on the stage between Cupid and Psyche, in the midst of the smoke and flames with which the piece had concluded; to express, as I was told by a lady, who, perceiving that I was a stranger, kindly took much pains to make me understand the whole allegory, the glowing ardours of love; he was hailed with loud applauses, and retired bowing, with an air of modest confusion, that would have been becoming even to Psyche herself.

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. The Teatro del Fondo in Naples was founded in 1779; it is now known as the Teatro Mercadante. The S. Carlo theatre is the Teatro di San Carlo, also in Naples.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Ars Poetica

Source: Extract from Horace, Ars Poetica (c.19 BC), translated by Ben Jonson (posthumously published 1640) and reproduced in W. Gifford, The Works of Ben Jonson… with notes critical and explanatory, and a biographical memoir (London: G. and W. Nicol [etc.], 1816), vol. 9, pp.105-113

Text:
Hear what it is the people and I desire:
If such a one’s applause thou dost require,
That tarries till the hangings be ta’en down,
And sits till th’epilogue says Clap, or crown:
The customs of each age thou must observe,
And give their years and natures, as they swerve,
Fit rights. The child, that now knows how to say,
And can tread firm, longs with like lads to play;
Soon angry, and soon pleas’d, is sweet, or sour,
He knows not why, and changeth every hour.

Th’ unbearded youth, his guardian once being gone,
Loves dogs and horses; and is ever one
I’ the open field; is wax-like to be wrought
To every vice, as hardly to be brought
To endure counsel: a provider slow
For his own good, a careless letter-go
Of money, haughty, to desire soon mov’d,
And then as swift to leave what he hath lov’d.

These studies alter now, in one grown man;
His better’d mind seeks wealth and friendship; than
Looks after honours, and bewares to act
What straightway he must labour to retract.

The old man many evils do girt round;
Either because he seeks, and, having found,
Doth wretchedly the use of things forbear,
Or does all business coldly, and with fear;
A great deferrer, long in hope, grown numb
With sloth, yet greedy still of what’s to come:
Froward, complaining, a commender glad
Of the times past, when he was a young lad:
And still correcting youth, and censuring.
Man’s coming years much good with them do bring:
As his departing take much thence, lest then
The parts of age to youth be given, or men
To children; we must always dwell, and stay
In fitting proper adjuncts to each day.

The business either on the stage is done,
Or acted told. But ever things that run
In at the ear, do stir the mind more slow
Than those the faithful eyes take in by show,
And the beholder to himself doth render.
Yet to the stage at all thou may’st not tender
Things worthy to be done within, but take
Much from the sight, which fair report will make
Present anon: Medea must not kill
Her sons before the people, nor the ill-
Natur’d and wicked Atreus cook to th’ eye
His nephew’s entrails; nor must Progne fly
Into a swallow there; nor Cadmus take
Upon the stage the figure of a snake.
What so is shown, I not believe, and hate.

Nor must the fable, that would hope the fate
Once seen, to be again call’d for, and play’d,
Have more or less than just five acts: nor laid,
To have a god come in; except a knot
Worth his untying happen there: and not
Any fourth man, to speak at all, aspire.

An actor’s parts, and office too, the quire
Must maintain manly: nor be heard to sing
Between the acts, a quite clean other thing
Than to the purpose leads, and fitly ‘grees.
It still must favour good men, and to these
Be won a friend; it must both sway and bend
The angry, and love those that fear t’ offend.
Praise the spare diet, wholesome justice, laws,
Peace, and the open ports, that peace doth cause.
Hide faults, pray to the gods, and wish aloud
Fortune would love the poor, and leave the proud.

The hau’boy, not as now with latten bound,
And rival with the trumpet for his sound,
But soft, and simple, at few holds breath’d time
And tune too, fitted to the chorus’ rhyme,
As loud enough to fill the seats, not yet
So over-thick, but where the people met,
They might with ease be number’d, being a few
Chaste, thrifty, modest folk, that came to view.
But as they conquer’d and enlarg’d their bound,
That wider walls embrac’d their city round,
And they uncensur’d might at feasts and plays
Steep the glad genius in the wine whole days,
Both in their tunes the license greater grew,
And in their numbers; for alas, what knew
The idiot, keeping holiday, or drudge,
Clown, townsman, base and noble mixt, to judge?
Thus to his ancient art the piper lent
Gesture and Riot, whilst he swooping went
In his train’d gown about the stage: so grew
In time to tragedy, a music new.
The rash and headlong eloquence brought forth
Unwonted language: and that sense of worth
That found out profit, and foretold each thing
Now differed not from Delphic riddling.

Thespis is said to be the first found out
The Tragedy, and carried it about,
Till then unknown, in carts, wherein did ride
Those that did sing, and act: their faces dy’d
With lees of wine. Next Eschylus, more late
Brought in the visor, and the robe of state,
Built a small timber’d stage, and taught them talk
Lofty and grave, and in the buskin stalk.
He too, that did in tragic verse contend
For the vile goat, soon after forth did send
The rough rude satyrs naked, and would try,
Though sour, with safety of his gravity,
How he could jest, because he mark’d and saw
The free spectators subject to no law,
Having well eat and drunk, the rites being done,
Were to be staid with softnesses, and won
With something that was acceptably new.
Yet so the scoffing satyrs to men’s view,
And so their prating to present was best,
And so to turn all earnest into jest,
As neither any god were brought in there,
Or semi-god, that late was seen to wear
A royal crown and purple, be made hop
With poor base terms through every baser shop:
Or whilst he shuns the earth, to catch at air
And empty clouds. For tragedy is fair,
And far unworthy to blurt out light rhymes;
But as a matron drawn at solemn times
To dance, so she should shamefac’d differ far
From what th’ obscene and petulant satyrs are.
Nor I, when I write satyrs, will so love
Plain phrase, my Pisos, as alone t’ approve
Mere reigning words: nor will I labour so
Quite from all face of tragedy to go,
As not make difference, whether Davus speak,
And the bold Pythias, having cheated weak
Simo, and of a talent wip’d his purse;
Or old Silenus, Bacchus’ guard and nurse.

I can out of known geer a fable frame,
And so as every man may hope the same;
Yet he that offers at it may sweat much,
And toil in vain: the excellence is such
Of order and connexion; so much grace
There comes sometimes to things of meanest place.
But let the Fauns, drawn from their groves, beware,
Be I their judge, they do at no time dare,
Like men street-born, and near the hall rehearse
Their youthful tricks in over-wanton verse;
Or crack out bawdy speeches, and unclean.
The Roman gentry, men of birth aud mean,
Will take offence at this: nor though it strike
Him that buys chiches blanch’d, or chance to like
The nut-crackers throughout, will they therefore
Receive or give it an applause the more.

Comments: Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace (65 BC – 8 BC) was a Roman poet. His Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), written c.19 BC, is a poem on the writing of poetry and theatre, among the most influential of all works of literary criticism. His words of advice provide useful evidence on the staging on Roman drama and its reception by audiences. The poem is written in the form of a letter to the Roman consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso and his sons. The Engish playwright and poet Ben Jonson (c.1572-1637) was a deep admirer of Horace, featuring him as a character in his play Poetaster. The earliest reference to Jondon undertaking a translation of Ars Poetica is in 1860, but it was not published until after his death, in 1640. Other translations are more accurate, but among those whose have reproduced Horace in English verse, none comes close to Jonson’s quality.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15

Talma (Hamlet) and Joséphine Duchesnois (Gertrude) in 1807, via Gallica

Source: Archibald Alison, Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15. Comprising a residence at Paris during the stay of the allied armies, and at Aix, at the period of the landing of Bonaparte (Edinburgh: printed for Macredie, Skelly, and Muckersy; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London; Black, Parry & Co. and T. Underwood, London; and J. Cumming, Dublin. 1816), vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 204-215

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Jean-François Ducis), Hamlet, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1814

Text: The tragedy of Hamlet, in which we saw Talma perform for the first time, is one which must be interesting to every person who has any acquaintance with French literature; and it will not probably be considered as any great digression in a description of Talma’s excellencies as an actor, to add some further remarks concerning that celebrated play in which his powers are perhaps most strikingly displayed, and which is one of the greatest compositions undoubtedly of the French theatre. It can hardly be called a translation, as many material alterations were made in the story of the play; and though the general purport of the principal speeches has
been sometimes preserved, the language and sentiments are generally extremely different. The character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was wholly unsuited to the taste of a French audience. What is the great attraction in that mysterious being to the feelings of the English people, the strange, wild, and metaphysical ideas which his art or his madness seems to take such pleasure in starting, and the uncertainty in which Shakespeare has left the reader with regard to Hamlet’s real situation, would not perhaps have been understood — certainly not admired, by those who were accustomed to consider the works of Racine and Voltaire as the models of dramatic composition. In the play of Ducis, accordingly, Hamlet thinks, talks, and acts pretty much as any other human being would do, who should be compelled to speak only in the verse of the French tragedy, which necessarily excludes, in a great degree, any great incoherence or flightiness of sentiment. In some respects, however, the French Hamlet, if a less poetical personage, is nevertheless a more interesting one, and better adapted to excite those feelings which are most within the command of the actor’s genius. M. Ducis has represented him as more doubtful of the reality of the vision which haunted him, or at least of the authority which had commissioned it for such dreadful communications; and this alteration, so important in the hands of Talma, was required on account of other changes which had been made in the story of the play. The paramour of the Queen is not Hamlet’s uncle, nor had the Queen either married the murderer, or discovered her criminal connexion with him. Hamlet, therefore, has not, in the incestuous marriage of his mother, that strong confirmation of the ghost’s communication, which, in Shakespeare, led him to suspect foul play even before he sees his father’s spirit. In the French play, therefore, Hamlet is placed in one of the most dreadful situations in which the genius of poetry can imagine a human being: Haunted by a spirit, which assumes such mastery over his mind, that he cannot dispel the fearful impression it has made, or disregard the communication it so often repeats, while his attachment to his mother, in whom he reveres the parent he has lost, makes him question the truth of crimes which are thus kid to her charge, and causes him to look upon this terrific spectre as the punishment of unknown crime, and the visitation of an offended Deity. Ducis has most judiciously and most poetically represented Hamlet, in the despair which his sufferings produce, as driven to the belief of an overruling destiny, disposing of the fate of its unhappy victims by the most arbitrary and revolting arrangement, and visiting upon some, with vindictive fury, the whole crimes of the age in which they live. There is in this introduction of ancient superstition, something which throws a mysterious veil round the destiny of Hamlet, that irresistibly engrosses the imagination, and which must be doubly interesting in that country where the horrors of the revolution have ended in producing a very prevalent, though vague belief, in the influence of fatality upon human character and human actions, among those who pretend to ridicule, as unmanly prejudice and childish delusion, the religion of modern Europe.

The struggle, accordingly, that appears to take place in Hamlet’s mind is most striking; and when at last he yields to the authority and the commands of the spirit, which exercises such tyranny over his mind, it does not seem the result of any farther evidence of the guilt which he is enjoined to revenge, but as the triumph of superstition over the strength of his reason. He had long resisted the influence of that visionary being, which announced itself as his father’s injured spirit, and in assuming that sacred form, had urged him to destroy the only parent whom fate had left; but the struggle had brought him to the brink of the grave, and shaken the empire of reason; and when at last he abandons himself to the guidance of a power which his firmer nature had long resisted, the impression of the spectator is, that his mind has yielded in the struggle, and that, in the desperate hope of obtaining relief from present wretchedness, he is about to commit the most horrible crimes, by obeying the suggestions of a spirit, which he more than suspects to be employed only to tempt him on to perdition. No description can possibly do justice to the manner in which this situation of Hamlet is represented by Talma; indeed, on reading over the play some time afterwards, it was very evident that the powers of the actor had invested the character with much of the grandeur and terror which seemed to belong to it, and that the imagination of the French poet, which rises into excellence, even when compared with the productions of that great master of the passions whom he has not submitted to copy, has been surpassed by the fancy of the actor for whom he wrote. The Hamlet of Talma is probably productive of more profound emotion, than any representation of character on any stage ever excited.

One other alteration ought to be mentioned, as it renders the circumstances of Hamlet’s situation still more distressing, and affords Talma an opportunity of displaying the effects of one of the gentler passions of human nature, when its influence seemed irreconcileable with the stern and fearful duties which fate had assigned to him. The Ophelia of the French play, so unlike that beautiful and innocent being who alone seems to connect the Hamlet of Shakespeare with the feelings and nature of ordinary men, has been made the daughter of the man for whose sake the king has been poisoned, and was engaged to marry Hamlet at that happier period when he was the ornament of his father’s court, and the hope of his father’s subjects. In the first part of the play, though no hint of the terrible revenge which he was to execute on her father has escaped, the looks and anxiety of Talma discover to her that her fate is in some degree connected with the emotions which so visibly oppress him, and she makes him at last confess the insurmountable barrier which separates them for ever. Nothing can be greater than the acting of Talma during this difficult scene, in which he has to resist the entreaties of the woman whom he loves, when imploring for the life of her father, and yet so overcome with his affection, as hardly to have strength left to adhere to his dreadful purpose.

The feelings of a French audience do not permit the spirit of Hamlet’s father to appear on the stage: “L’apparition se passe, (says Madame de Stael), en entier dans la physionomie de Talma, et certes elle n’en est pas ainsi moins effrayante. Quand, au milieu d’un entretien calme et melancohque, tout a coup il aperçoit le spectre, on suit tout ses mouvemens dans les yeux qui le contemplent, et l’on ne peut outer de la presence du fantome quand un tel regard l’atteste.” The remark is perfectly just, nothing can be imagined more calculated to dispel at once the effect which the countenance of a great actor, in such circumstances, would naturally produce, than bringing any one on the stage to personate the ghost; and whever has seen Talma in this part, will acknowledge that the mind is not disposed to doubt, for an instant, the existence of that form which no eye but his has seen, and of that voice which no ear but his has heard. We regretted much, while witnessing the astonishing powers which Talma displayed in this very difficult part of the play, that it was impossible to see his genius employed in giving effect to the character of Aristodemo, (in the Italian tragedy of that name by Monti), to which his talents alone could do justice, and which, perhaps, affords more room for the display of the actor’s powers, than any other play with which we are acquainted.

But the soliloquy on death is the part in which the astonishing excellence and genius of Talma are most strikingly displayed. Whatever difficulty there may often be to determine the particular manner in which scenes, with other characters, ought to be performed, there is no difference of opinion as to the manner in which soliloquies ought in general to be delivered. How comes it, then, that these are the very parts in which all feel that the powers of the actors are so much tried, and in which, for the most part, they principally fail? No one can have paid any attention to the English stage, without being struck with the circumstance, that while there may be much to praise in the performance of the other parts, many of the best actors uniformly fail in soliloquies; and that it is only of late, since the reputation of the English stage has been so splendidly revived, that we have seen these difficult and interesting parts properly performed. It is in this circumstance, more than any other, in which the talents of Talma are most remarkably displayed, because he is peculiarly fitted, by his complete personation of character, and the deep interest which he seems himself to take in the part he is sustaining, to excel in performing what chiefly requires such interest. He is, at all times, so fully impressed with the feelings, which, under such circumstances, must have been really felt, that one is uniformly struck with the truth and propriety of every thing he does; and of course, n soliloquies, which must be perfect, when the actor appears to be seriously and deeply interested in the subjects on which he is meditating, Talma invariably succeeds. In this soliloquy in Hamlet, he is completely absorbed in the awful importance of the great question which occupies his attention, and nothing indicates the least consciousness of the multitude which surrounds him, or even that he is giving utterance to the mighty thoughts which crowd upon his mind. “Talma ne faisoit pas un geste, quelquefois seulement il remuoit la tête pour questioner la terre et le ciel sur ce que c’est que la mort! Immobile, la dignite de la meditation absorboit tout son etre.” We could wish to avoid any attempt to describe the acting of Talma in those passages which the eloquence of M. de Stael has rendered familiar throughout Europe; yet we feel that this account of the tragedy of Hamlet would be imperfect, if we did not allude to that very interesting scene, which corresponds, in the history of the play, to the closet scene in Shakespeare. Talma appears with the urn which contains the ashes of his father, and whose injured spirit he seems to consult, to obtain more proof of the guilt which he is to revenge, or in the hope that the affections of human nature may yet survive the horrors of the tomb, and that the duty of the son will not be tried in the blood of the parent who gave him birth. But no voice is heard to alter the sentence which he is doomed to execute; and he is still compelled to prepare himself to meet with sternness his guilty mother. After charging her, with the utmost tenderness and solemnity, with the knowledge of her husband’s murder, he places the urn in her hands, and requires her to swear her innocence over the sacred ashes which it contains. At first, the consciousness that Hamlet could only suspect her crime, gives her resolution to commence the oath with firmness; and Talma, with an expression of countenance which cannot be described, awaits, in triumph and joy, the confirmation of her innocence, — and seems to call upon the spirit which had haunted him, to behold the solemn scene which proves the falsehood of its mission. But the very tenderness which he shews destroys the resolution of his mother, and she hesitates in the oath she had begun to pronounce. His feelings are at once changed, — the paleness of horror, and fury of revenge, are marked in his countenance, and his hands grasp the steel which is to punish her guilt: But the agony of his mother again overpowers him, at the moment he is about to strike; he appeals for mercy to the shade of his father, in a voice, in which, as M. de Stael has truly said, all the feelings of human nature seem at once to burst from his heart, and, in an attitude humbled by the view of his mother’s guilt and wretchedness, he awaits the confession she seems ready to make: and when she sinks, overcome by the remorse and agony which she feels, he remembers only that she is his mother; the affection which had been long repressed again returns, and he throws himself on his knees, to assure her of the mercy of Heaven. We do not wish to be thought so presumptuous as to compare the talents of the French author with the genius of Shakespeare, but we must be allowed to say, that we think this scene better managed for dramatic effect: and certainly no part of Hamlet, on the English stage, ever produced the same impression, or affected us so deeply. We are well aware, however, how very different the scene would have appeared in the hands of any other actors than Talma and Madle. Duchesnois, and that a very great part of the merit which the play seemed to possess, might be more justly attributed to the talents which they displayed. At the conclusion of this great tragedy, which has become so popular in France, and in which the genius of Talma is so powerfully exhibited, the applause was universal; and after some little time, to our surprise, instead of diminishing, became much louder; and presently a cry of Talma burst out from the whole house. In a few minutes the curtain drew up, and discovered Talma waiting to receive the applause with which they honoured him, and to express his sense of the distinction paid to him.

Comments: Archibald Alison (1792-1867) was a Scottish lawyer and historian, author of the ten-volume History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (1833-1843). Jean-François Ducis helped introduce Shakespeare to the French through adaptations of the plays in which elements of the plot were sometimes radically altered. His adaptation of Hamlet was made in 1760. Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. François-Joseph Talma performed in a number of Ducis’s adaptations. Hamlet’s mother was played by Joséphine Duchesnois. Madame de Staël wrote about Talma’s Hamlet in De l’Allemagne (1813).

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

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

Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry

Source: Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852 (London: Longmans, Green, 1865), pp. 167-168

Production: Antoine de la Fosse, Manlius Capitolinus and Marc-Antoine Legrand, L’Aveugle Clairvoyant, Comédie-Française, Paris, 6 July 1818

Text: Monday, July 6th. — M. de Duras gave us tickets for this week in the box of the gentlemen in waiting. I arrived in time to see the last scene’ of Talma, in ‘Manlius.’ It was the night of his return to the theatre after rather a long absence. On the curtain falling, they called loudly for him, with a noise and a disturbance much more like London than Paris. Three times they in vain began the second piece; it was impossible to hear a word. Three times the two actresses who had to commence the piece took refuge in the side scenes. At last, whilst Baptiste Cadet came forward to address the audience, some officer of the police, in his scarf of office, announced that, by an order of the police, the actors were forbidden to appear upon the stage out of their parts. One might well ask why this rule? which prevents the audience from showing, and the actor from receiving, these marks of approbation. They have much to learn in this country upon the ne quid nimis in the way of government. At last the audience was asked if they would have the second piece, ‘L’Aveugle Clairvoyant.’ Upon the reiterated ‘Ouis’ from the pit, they replied, ‘Vous l’aurez quand ces misérables criards ont cesses.’ On this the noise was renewed for some minutes, after which we had the piece very well acted and very amusing.

Comments: Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a British editor, letter writer and diarist, known for her close association with Horace Walpole. Her published journals and correspondence include many theatregoing references. François-Joseph Talma (1762-1826) was the leading French actor of the period. One of his most celebrated roles was than of Manlius in Manlius Capitolinus, the 1698 Roman tragedy by Antoine de La Fosse. L’Aveugle Clairvoyant was written by the prolific French playwright Marc-Antoine Legrand.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 191-196

Production: Arthur Wimperis (book) and Edmund Eysler (music), The Laughing Husband, The New Theatre, London, 2 October 1913

Text: By a quarter to eight St. Martin’s Lane is filled with carriages, limousines and taxis discharging their human freight at the New Theatre as rapidly as the giant doorman and three “bobbies” can keep the line moving. For at eight (sharp) the curtain is to ring up on a new musical comedy.

All the tickets have been sold five weeks before — and sold for real money. Sir Charles Wyndham, the New Theatre’s proprietor, does not believe in “complimentaries.” The only deadheads are the critics. Fortunately for six shillings I have been able to obtain a seat in the last row of the dress circle. The London theatrical manager who bought it has been called out of town. I happen at the box office as he is getting his money back. Can you imagine Abe Erlanger buying a theatre ticket in New York? Well, even Erlanger would have to buy his seat at any of Sir Charles Wyndham’s playhouses.

The “first night” audience that finds its way to the stalls, boxes and dress circle is far different than one sees in New York. In the first place every one is in evening dress — full evening dress, if that makes it clearer. I don’t believe there is a dinner coat in the theatre and I am sure if any one had arrived in a sack suit he would have been barred. And of course there are no women in shirtwaists or “tailor mades.” Lo and behold, gowns are the rule and the only woman who wears a hat is an American actress — who should have known better.

It is almost impossible to elbow one’s way through the crowd in the lobby — theatregoers in London have the New York habit of blocking the lobbies on first nights, with this difference — they are in their seats when the curtain goes up.

It costs sixpence (12 cents) to get to a seat. An usherine collects it for a programme — one sort of graft New Yorkers won’t tolerate. Stalls (orchestra chairs) are ten shillings sixpence ($2.52) at the box office, so theatregoing is more expensive in London than in New York. However, you even it up on the taxicabs. You can ride a mile for 16 cents and usually a shilling will take you to or from any theatre to your hotel.

The dress circle, where my seat is, is on the street level, for in the New Theatre, as well as in most London theatres, it is necessary to descend a flight of steps to reach what we call the orchestra chairs. London theatregoers are not prejudiced against balcony seats. Many of the smartest people prefer the dress circle to the stalls, and the seats behind the stalls, which sell for $2 in New York are the cheapest in the theatre.

In the right upper box are the Crown Prince of Greece, the Duke of Sparta and several ladies. Sir John Rolleston, M.P., occupies another box. Sir Charles Wyndham sits in the stage box with Miss Mary Moore. In the front stalls are Capt. Knollys, Lady Henry, Lady Wolesley and several other ladies of high degree — all bediamoned and bepearled — and all very homely.

London does not boast of “first-nighters” as New York knows them. There are some “old bloods” who take in all the George Edwardes first nights — musical comedies at the Gaiety, Adelphi and Daly’s — but as a rule each theatre has its own clientele. Of course the more famous actors and actresses who are “at liberty” attend premieres.

The only “regulars” are the dozen critics from the big London dailies. These critics, by the way, are so well dressed and so unostentatious that they cannot be distinguished from the “Johnnys” in the stalls. Nor do they leave before the play is half over to write their “stuff.” At least, I observed that they were all present when the final curtain fell.

As is the custom in New York, the male portion of the audience seeks the lobby and neighboring bars during the intermission. They light cigarettes and even pipes. The bar in the theatre does a rushing business for about fifteen minutes. Every one at it takes brandy and soda or Scotch and soda. When the bell rings there is a rush for the stalls and boxes, where those who had remained with the ladies are enjoying coffee.

At the intermission between the second and third acts I go behind the scenes where I see Lionel Montagu, Esq., R. Seligman, Esq., and Col. MacGeorge, three well known Londoners, come to congratulate Mr. Courtice Pounds, the star.

When the final curtain falls there are cheers and “bravos.” The play is a success and the audience remains until Philip Michael Faraday, the producer, comes on the stage and bows his thanks. Then Arthur Wimperis, who did the book, is dragged out to bow his thanks. After more handclapping and cheering the audience moves to the lobby and the street to watch the celebrities enter their cars. It must be admitted that Miss Marie Lohr the actress, who is in the audience with H.B. Irving, attracts more attention than the Crown Prince of Greece. It requires the combined efforts of ten “bobbies” to keep the crowds back and carriages in line. Although the play is over at eleven o’clock, it is a quarter to twelve before the lobby is cleared and the lights turned out.

The play? Oh, yes. It was called “The Laughing Husband” — a Viennese operetta with music by Edmund Eysler. There is no need to describe it. You have seen it half a dozen times and you will see it again if you go to musical shows.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The comic operetta The Laughing Husband, with book by Arthur Wimperis and music by Edmund Eysler, was based on a German original, Der lachende ebemann, by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grunwald. It starred Charles Courtice Pounds and opened at the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) in London on 2 October 1913.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 29-36

Production: William Shakespeare, Der Kaufmann von Venedig [The Merchant of Venice], Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 1913

Text: A first night at the Deutsches Theatre is an event. For the Deutsches Theatre is the first theatre of Germany — and in the opinion of many people the first theatre of Europe. Since it has been under the direction of Max Reinhardt it has won world wide fame and its premieres attract the most intellectual first night audiences in the world.

A premiere at the Deutsches Theatre begins at seven o’clock but long before that hour every seat in the auditorium is filled. In the first place it is quite fashionable to attend first nights at this playhouse and what is perhaps more important, a considerable portion of Berlin’s population look upon the Deutsches Theatre as an educational institution of the first rank.

It must be admitted that it is rather difficult to get a ticket for a Reinhardt premiere. Thousands want to go — and there are only twelve hundred seats. But if you are able to buy one you will be agreeably surprised in getting exactly what you pay for. Tickets in the first row at the Deutsches Theatre are 15 marks ($3.75) each. From the second to the seventh row they are $2.50 each and from the eighth to the fifteenth row about $1.88 each. If you can only get a ticket in the last row you pay but 75 cents — which is far more equitable than paying $2 for a ticket in the last row of a New York playhouse because the manager sells his best seats to ticket agencies to increase his receipts. However, there are no sharp practices in Berlin, as far as theaters are concerned.

Like all the Reinhardt first nighters you arrive at the theatre ten or fifteen minutes before the curtain is announced to rise. You check your coat and hat and stick (for 2 1⁄2 cents per article) and allow an usher to show you to your seat. If you want a program you have to pay five cents for it, but it is worth the money, for with every program is distributed a booklet containing a dozen critical essays on the play you are to see.

You have only to glance around the auditorium to appreciate the fact that you are far from Broadway. Although it is a first night there are less than a dozen people in evening dress. The boxes and loges are filled with men in business suits and women in what one might call afternoon gowns — if one stretched a point. To be sure there are a few dinner coats scattered through the first orchestra chairs, but there are scarcely six correctly attired persons in the audience — according to Broadway first night standards.

And the spirit of the audience is entirely different from New York’s “I-dare-you-to-make-me-like-this-play” attitude. The men and women in the audience have come to see a serious production and when the lights are dimmed for the curtain to rise the theater is steeped in silence. There are no Diamond Jim Bradys to walk down the aisle after the curtain has risen. If you are not in your seat when the play begins you remain outside until the end of the first act.

The play to-night is “Der Kaufmann von Venedig” — Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Eight years ago Prof. Reinhardt produced this play at the Deutsches Theatre; but this season he is giving a “Shakespeare Cyclus” or repertoire of thirteen Shakespearean plays, extending over a period of six months. To-night is the first performance of the famous play in the present cycle and since it is an entirely new production all the critics in Berlin are present to review it. Engel of the Berliner Tageblatt, the Alan Dale of the German Capital, is in the fourth row. Close by is Claar of the Vossische Zeitung. Directly in front of me is a distinguished looking man who could easily impersonate the Christus in the Passion Play without make-up. He is Alfred Kerr, one of the leading critics of the theater in Germany. He is a “free lance,” but newspapers and weekly publications engage him to “cover” important openings.

In the very first row is Prince August Wilhelm, the fourth son of the German Kaiser. Prince August Wilhelm is the civilian son of the Great War Lord. He is a highly cultivated young man, a doctor of philosophy, and he delights in being called “Professor.” His wife, the Princess August Wilhelm, is in the stage box with a party of royal guests. For while the Kaiser frowns upon the Deutsches Theater (it must be remembered he is in the position of a rival theatrical manager since he supports and practically conducts the Kaiserliches Schauspielhaus) that portion of royalty endowed with brains patronizes it on every occasion. Prince August Wilhelm attends every first night and is one of Max Reinhardt’s personal friends.

The play is on. The audience is in Venice — not the Venice of a Forty-fifth street scene painter, but a real slice of Venice built by one of the leading artists in Europe. The Deutsches Theatre has a revolving stage which enables the scenes to be changed almost instantly. The first three acts are played consecutively in ten scenes. There is not a moment’s delay. The lights are dimmed, a rumbling sound is heard and behold! Shylock’s garden, Portia’s house or the Grand Canal is before you. Every scene is absolutely perfect — it is a veritable moving picture in colors with real people speaking the best German to be heard anywhere in the world.

At nine o’clock the tenth scene is over and the curtain is rung down. For the first time in the evening there is applause. However, it is of short duration for the audience is intent upon other things. Berlin, like Vienna, goes to the theatre on an empty stomach and the “lange Pause,” as the intermission is called, is devoted to eating cold meats, salads and sandwiches and drinking much Pilsener and other beers. There is a restaurant in the basement of the theatre, a buffet on the balcony floor and a bar besides. All these places are filled to overflowing during the “lange Pause” Ex-Colonial Secretary Dernburg, who always attends first nights at the Deutsches Theater, munches a Blutwurst sandwich as he recalls the days spent in Wall Street learning frenzied finance. Prof. Alois Brandl, head of the English Department at the University of Berlin, and recognized as the first Shakespearean scholar on the Continent, chats with our Ambassador, “Jimmy” Gerard, who is as much of a first nighter in Berlin as he was in New York. They do not attack the food; for, following the American custom, they have dined before the theater.

In the crowd around the bar are Prof. Bie, the famous art critic, Prof. Orlik, the painter, and Prof. Ordynski, who is Reinhardt’s right hand man, and who came to New York with “Sumurun.” All the leading intellectuals of Berlin are there or hurrying back to their seats so as not to miss a moment of the performance.

At twenty-five minutes after nine the curtain rings up on the fourth act. It is played consecutively with the fifth act in seven scenes. At eleven o’clock the final curtain falls and there is a deafening sound of applause mingled with cheers. For five minutes this applause continues. Albert Bassermann, the Shylock, and Else Heims, the Portia, appear before the curtain again and again. But that does not satisfy the audience. They want Reinhardt. The cry starts in the gallery, it is taken up in the orchestra and spreads to the boxes. The Kaiser’s son is shouting for the producer. Prof. Brandl is making an inarticulate noise. Everyone is standing up, but no one — not even the critics — has left the theater.

The audience has its way. The curtain rises and a smooth shaven, young looking man, in evening dress, walks to the center of the stage and bows. It is Max Reinhardt, the director of the Deutsches Theatre, and the foremost producer in Germany.

The bow satisfies. There is another sound of applause followed by a rush for the exits.

A first night at the Deutsches Theatre is over.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was an Austrian theatre director and producer whose radical approach to stage production made him one of the pre-eminent theatrical figures of his time. His Shakespeare cycle was held at the Deutches Theater, Berlin, over 1913/14. The role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice  alternated between Albert Bassermann and Rudolf Schildkraut.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

An Evening at Collins’s

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

Text:

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

Max Beerbohm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust