Diaries

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Source: Franz Kafka (ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948), pp. 175-176

Production: Gerhardt Hauptmann, Der Biberpelz, Prague, December 1911

Text: December 13. Biberpelz. Bad play, flowing along without climax. Scenes with the police superintendent not true. Delicate acting by the Lehmann woman of the Lessing Theater. The way her skirt folds between her thighs when she bends. The thoughtful look of the people when she raises her two hands, places them one under the other on the left in front of her face, as though she wanted to weaken the force of the denying or protesting voice. Bewildered, coarse acting of the others. The comedian’s impudence toward the play (draws his saber, exchanges hats). My cold aversion. Went home, but while still there sat with a feeling of admiration that so many people take upon themselves so much excitement for an evening (they shout, steal, are robbed, harass, slander, neglect), and that in this play, if one only looks at it with blinking eyes, so many disordered human voices and exclamations are thrown together. Pretty girls. One with a flat face, unbroken surfaces of skin, rounded cheeks, hair beginning high up, eyes lost in this smoothness and protruding a little. – Beautiful passages of the play in which the Wulffen woman shows herself at once a thief and an honest friend of the clever, progressive, democratic people. A Wehrhahn in the audience might feel himself justified. – Sad parallelism of the four acts. In the first act there is stealing, in the second act is the judgment, the same in the third and fourth acts.

Comments: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, author of ‘Die Verwandlung’ (‘The Metamorphosis’) and Der Process (The Trial). He saw Gerhardt Hauptmann‘s 1893 satirical play Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat). The ‘Lehmann woman’ he saw perform was presumably Else Lehmann, who was noted for her naturalistic performances in Hauptmann’s plays. The Lessing Theatre was located in Berlin.

A Diary of the French Revolution

Source: Beatrix Cary Davenport (ed.), A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris, 1752-1816 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), vol. 1, pp. 223-224

Production: Jean Racine, Athalie, Comédie-Française, Paris, 19 September 1789

Text: Saturday 19. — Employed this Morning in writing. Dine at Monsr. de Corny’s, in consequence of a Note from Madame, desiring the Engagement for Tomorrow may take Effect this Day. After Dinner converse with de Corny about a Contract for supplying Flour to Paris, and offer him a fourth Concern. He desires a Note of my Ideas, which I promise. The Conversation is as usual political. From hence I go to the french Theatre and see the Chef-d’oeuvre of Racine, Athalie. It is well performed and is well calculated for Performance. There is however a Deal of ridiculous Gesticulation during the Time in which the high Priest is inspired but this can hardly be avoided, for the Mutes, who cannot in the usual Course of Things possess the Talents which are required to speak to the Eye, must either appear as insensible Statues or ludicrous Pantomimes. Hence results a Maxim for Theatrical Exhibitions which I do not remember to have met with anywhere: the Stage should never be filled on great and solemn Occasions. The Procession may be admitted and a Crowd may appear when only common Emotions are to be expressed, or when Laughter is to be excited by Something outré, because most Men have Talents enough to render themselves ridiculous, but very few are able to excite, much less to sustain, the greater Sensations of the Soul such as Terror & Admiration. Return Home immediately after the Piece and write what I promised to de Corny. This has been a rainy disagree[e]able Day.

Comments: Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) was one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, author of the Preamble to the US Constitution. He went to France in 1789 and was Minister Plenipotentiary to France 1792-1794. His diary provides a vivid account of the French Revolution and includes several accounts of visits to the Paris theatre. The ‘French Theatre’ is the Comédie-Française.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘John Philip Kembel as Hamlet’ (1802), via Wikimedia Commons

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), pp. 121-125

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet and George Colman the Younger, The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 21 April 1811

Text: April 21. — Hamlet was acted yesterday at Covent-Garden, and Kemble, the reigning prince of the English stage, filled the principal part. He understands his art thoroughly, but wants spirit and nature. His manner is precise and artificial; his voice monotonous and wooden; his features are too large, even for the stage. Munden in the part of Polonius, and Fawcett in the grave-digger, played charmingly. It is enough to mention the grave-diggers, to awaken in France the cry of rude and barbarous taste; and, were I to say how the part is acted, it might be still worse. After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pick-axe, spits in his hand,— gives a stroke or two,— talks,— stops,— strips off his waistcoat, still talking, — folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat, then an under-waistcoat, still talking, — another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded and unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively, and the pantomimic variations a good actor knows how to introduce in it, are sure to be vehemently applauded. The French admit of no such relaxation in the dignité tragique.

L’éroite bienseance y veut être gardée;

and Boileau did not even allow Moliere to have won the prize of comedy, because he had

Quitté pour le bouffon l’agréable et le fin
Et sans honte a Terence allié Tabarin

much less would he or his school have approved of an alliance between tragedy and farce. Yet it may well be questioned whether the interest is best kept up by an uninterrupted display of elevation. For my part, I am inclined to think that the repose afforded by a comic episode renovates the powers of attention and of feeling, and prepares for new tragical emotions more effectually than an attempt to protract these emotions during the whole representation could have done. It is by no means usual for the different actors of the same scene, in real life, to be all equally affected. The followers of a hero do not feel as magnanimous as himself, and are even apt to laugh among themselves at his vices or his virtues. The hero himself is not always a hero, and does not speak invariably in the same tone. Indeed I do not know that it is unnatural for the same person to laugh and cry, within the same half hour, at the very same thing, or at least various views of the same thing; nor that this inconsistency of the human mind might not furnish stronger dramatic touches than the contrary quality. Poetical excitement cannot be maintained long at a time; you must take it up and lay it down like a flower, or soon cease to be sensible of the fragrance. If real illusion could ever take place in dramatic representation, it would certainly be produced rather by that diversity of tone and character which exists in nature, than by an artificial unity. But nobody does, in point of fact, forget for a moment, that what he sees is a fable, and, if he did, the effect of a tragedy would hardly be pleasure. We look on poetical terrors as we do from the brink of a precipice upon the yawning chasm below; it makes our head turn, and takes off our breath for very fear ; but, leaning on the parapet-wall, we feel all safe. Looking on the verdure and mild beauties around us, we enjoy the contrast; and, meeting the eye of our companion, exchange a smile.

Voltaire, D’Alembert, and many other foreign critics, agree in reproving this scene of the grave-diggers as horribly low, while they extol the soliloquy of Hamlet. Supposing, however, the sentiments of the prince had been put into the mouth of the peasant, and those of the peasant given to the prince, I question whether these critics would not still have taken part with the latter against the former. It is the spade and the jests which discredit the philosophy, yet there is a certain coarse but energetic fitness between the one and the other, — and the tone of buffoonery does not ill accord with the contempt of life, its vanities, and empty greatness. I have made a free translation of these two scenes, endeavouring to convey the ideas rather than the words, that my French readers may judge for themselves.

The tragedy of Hamlet is much more objectionable on other points, —being, in my opinion, one of the most ill conceived and inexplicable of Shakespeare’s plays,— which are all of them little else than mere frames for his ideas, comic or philosophical, gloomy or playful, as they occurred, without much attention to time and place; expressed with a vigour, a richness, and originality, quite wonderful in the original, but nearly lost in any translation. We might apply to Shakespeare what has been said of our Montaigne: “que personne ne savoit moins que lui, ce qu’il alloit dire, ni mieux ce qu’il disoit.” I have remarked before, that the style of Shakespeare is not old; and the inartificial texture of his plays appears the more strange on that account :— this style, just as it is, might be applied to the best conducted fable, and most regular argument. Of the dramatic writers who followed him, some avoided his irregularities, but missed his style, or rather had not his depth, his strength and genius; while others, and there is a recent example, approached that style, and had some sparks of that genius, but adopted, in their zeal, the inconsistencies, the coarseness, and even the puns. You can excuse, in a Gothic cathedral of five or six hundred years standing, those monkish figures carved on the walls, lolling their tongues out, or pointing the finger of scorn at each other, in low derision, and others still more indecent, in favour of the wonderful art, which, in such an age of darkness and ignorance, durst conceive, and could execute the idea of building this religious grove, rearing its arched boughs, and
lofty shades of hewn stones 150 feet above your head; — while the country-house of the wealthy citizen of London, mimicking that taste of architecture, excites a smile, — and if he should carry the imitation beyond the pointed arch, and painted windows, to the very indecencies I have mentioned, the ridicule would be complete.

The after-piece was Blue-Beard, which outdoes, in perversion of taste, all the other showy stupidities of the modern stage. A troop of horse (real horse) is actually introduced, or rather two troops, charging each other full speed, — the floor is covered with earth, — the horses are Astley’s, and well drilled; they kick, and rear, and bite, and scramble up walls almost perpendicular, and when they can do no more, fall, and die as gracefully as any of their brethren, the English tragedians. All this might do very well at Astley’s, but what a pity and a shame that horses should be the successors of Garrick, and bring fuller houses than Mrs Siddons!

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The production of Hamlet that he saw at Covent Garden featured John Philip Kemble as Hamlet and Joseph Munden as Polonius and John Fawcett as the gravedigger. The afterpiece was George Colman the Younger‘s 1798 play The Grand Dramatic Romance Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity. Astley’s Amphitheatre in London was famed for its circus and equestrian entertainments.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

The Diary of Philip Hone

Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide, via Wikipedia

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, p. 227

Production: Gioachino Rossini, Le siège de Corinthe and Filippo Taglioni, La Sylphide, Salle Le Peletier (Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique), Paris, 12 September 1836

Text: Well, I have seen Taliogni. She danced this evening at the French Opera, in the ballet of the Sylphide. It was a single performance, and, fortunately, fell upon our last night in Paris. The immense theatre was crowded in every part. Bradford obtained excellent places for us in the course of the day. The opera was the “Siege of Corinth,” which, did not interest me; but the ballet was certainly the poetry of motion and the sunlight of beauty. I never saw anything of the kind before which is not routed horse and foot out of my recollection by the force of this fascinating spectacle. Not only the calypso of the night, but her attendant nymphs all danced and moved and floated like beings of another world. The piece is exactly the same as that gotten up in New York as an opera when Mrs. Austin was there, under the name of the “Mountain Sylph”; but, fortunately, there was no singing or speaking here. It would have been too much, when one of our senses was completely absorbed, to have another invaded, and in danger of being captured; it might have ended in nonsense. The whole affair was so nicely managed, the machinery worked so well, the sylphs flew in the air, as if their little delicate feet had never touched the ground, and when their lovely sister died, four of them enveloped her in a net of gold and, each taking a corner, flew up with her into the air, where, I take it for granted, the Sylphic Pere la Chaise is situated. Or, perhaps, the beauteous beings of their race, when defunct, are taken up to exhale in the regions above, and return to us in the form of dew-drops to sparkle on the leaves of the newly blown rose, or hide in the velvet recesses of the fragrant violet. Taliogni is small, delicate, and, I think, pretty, and her dancing excels that of any other woman as much as Mrs. Wood’s singing does Mrs. Sharp’s. It is not only in great agility and dexterity, but it is the perfection of grace and beauty, and addresses itself to the imagination, as it is, in fact, half the time something between earth and heaven. When this pleasant affair was ended, we went to Tortoni’s and took our ices. This is the most fashionable house in Paris.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. Marie Taglioni (1804-1804) was a Italian-Swedish ballet dancer, one of the most celebrated figures of the romantic ballet of the nineteenth century, known especially for her dancing en pointe. La Sylphide was choreographed for her by her father Filippo Taglioni in 1832. She danced regularly at the Salle Le Peletier, or Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique as it was known at this time. Le siège de Corinthe was an opera by Rossini.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin

Source: Henry Reeve, Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin, in the eventful winter 1805-6 (London: Longmans, Green, 1877), pp. 45-46

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Vienna, 12 November 1805

Text: Tuesday night, November 12.— Went to see ‘Othello’ performed at one of the great theatres; it was indeed a woeful tragedy. Some excuse may be made for the performers as they acted to empty benches; scarcely a hundred persons were in the whole house. The actors repeated the words as fast as possible. The piece is performed nearly as in the original. Roderigo is not killed on the stage, and Othello stabs Desdemona, and afterwards stabs himself. But all the beauties of Shakespeare seem to be lost in the harsh German translation. Othello ranted and strained and stormed, and poor Desdemona waddled backwards without dignity or grace. She was very fat and awkward, and more fit for Molly Maybush than the dignified daughter of a Venetian senator, who, by the bye, was a strong hale fellow who ran about and bellowed like a porter. The whole piece was a wretched murder, but I was told it is greatly admired when well performed. The directors of the theatres wished to shut them up during this time of alarm, but the magistrates ordered them to be open, and the people are to be amused whether they will or no.

Comments: Henry Reeve (1780–1814) was an English physician who undertook a tour through Europe over 1805-06, visiting the theatre on many occasions. ‘Molly Maybush’ was a character in John O’Keefe‘s 1787 comic opera The Farmer.

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

Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): her diaries and letters

Source: Lucy Masterman (ed.), Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): her diaries and letters (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1930), p. 173

Production: Victor Hugo, Hernani, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 17 October 1879

Text: PARIS, Fri. Oct. 17. — A 2 hours’ drive in great cold and drizzle, went to Notre Dame and the Madeleine and all over the place. Table d’hôte and off to the Théâtre Français for Hernani and Sarah Bernhardt. I still think her greatest in her excessive quiet and repose, her tenderness is wonderful, the stormy bits are splendid, tho’ not as splendid here as in Phèdre. Mounet-Sully who acts with her very much overdoes voice and gestures, wh. is a great pity. The final Death scene very fine.

Comments: Mary Gladstone (1847-1927) was a writer and political secretary, daughter of the British prime minister William Gladstone. Her diaries regularly mention visits to the theatre, Hernani was a drama by the French novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 28 December 1666

Productions: William Shakespeare (adapted by William Davenant), Macbeth and Roger Boyle, Henry the Fifth, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and at court (Whitehall) respectively, London, 28 December 1666

Text: Up, and Creed and I walked (a very fine walk in the frost) to my Lord Bellasses, but missing him did find him at White Hall, and there spoke with him about some Tangier business. That done, we to Creed’s lodgings, which are very pretty, but he is going from them. So we to Lincoln’s Inne Fields, he to Ned Pickering’s, who it seems lives there, keeping a good house, and I to my Lord Crew’s, where I dined, and hear the newes how my Lord’s brother, Mr. Nathaniel Crew, hath an estate of 6 or 700l. per annum, left him by the death of an old acquaintance of his, but not akin to him at all. And this man is dead without will, but had, above ten years since, made over his estate to this Mr. Crew, to him and his heirs for ever, and given Mr. Crew the keeping of the deeds in his own hand all this time; by which, if he would, he might have taken present possession of the estate, for he knew what they were. This is as great an act of confident friendship as this latter age, I believe, can shew. From hence to the Duke’s house, and there saw “Macbeth” most excellently acted, and a most excellent play for variety. I had sent for my wife to meet me there, who did come, and after the play was done, I out so soon to meet her at the other door that I left my cloake in the playhouse, and while I returned to get it, she was gone out and missed me, and with W. Hewer away home. I not sorry for it much did go to White Hall, and got my Lord Bellasses to get me into the playhouse; and there, after all staying above an hour for the players, the King and all waiting, which was absurd, saw “Henry the Fifth” well done by the Duke’s people, and in most excellent habits, all new vests, being put on but this night. But I sat so high and far off, that I missed most of the words, and sat with a wind coming into my back and neck, which did much trouble me. The play continued till twelve at night; and then up, and a most horrid cold night it was, and frosty, and moonshine. But the worst was, I had left my cloak at Sir G. Carteret’s, and they being abed I was forced to go home without it. So by chance got a coach and to the Golden Lion Taverne in the Strand, and there drank some mulled sack, and so home, where find my poor wife staying for me, and then to bed mighty cold.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The two plays he saw on this one day were William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, as adapted by William Davenant, and a Henry the Fifth that was in all probability the play by Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, rather than Shakespeare’s play.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/12/28/

A Persian at the Court of King George

Source: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan (ed./trans. Margaret Morris Cloake), A Persian at the Court of King George: The Journal of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10 (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), p. 232

Text: 14 May [1810]

My friends told me about a theatre on the outskirts of London called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’, which opens in the spring, and where one can watch horses dancing. I went there with Sir Gore Ouseley. The theatre is somewhat smaller than the others I have seen and described in this journal.

I will describe the performance of one of the nimble riders who stood on a horse’s back, without holding the reins, while the horse continued to run around the circular arena. Sometimes he jumped down to the ground and back up again; sometimes he stood on one foot, or lay down, or stood on his head with his legs in the air; sometimes he would vault himself from one side of the horse to the other; or, grasping the horse’s body with his legs, he would hang underneath with his hands trailing on the ground. Then a second horse was brought in to run alongside the first. The rider jumped back and forth from one horse to the other, dancing and clapping his hands. A third horse was added and he continued dancing. Most amazing of all was his feat of jumping from one side to the other over all three horses!

The owner of the theatre was a friendly man; he explained to me how the horses are trained to perform these tricks. My Iranian servants were amazed and astonished by what they had seen.

As we left the theatre, I told Sir Gore Ouseley I thought the horses performed so well that it should be called the ‘Horse Opera’.

Comments: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, or Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi (1776-1845) was an Iranian ambassador who headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1809-1810. 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, such as seen by Mirza Abul Hassan Khan.