Frances Abington

The Dramatic Censor

Source: Francis Gentleman, The Dramatic Censor; or, Critical Companion, vol. 1 (London: J. Bell, 1770), pp.196-198

Text: Portia has fallen to the lot of several capital ladies; and indeed she not only requires, but merits the exertion of eminent abilities; Mrs. WOFFINGTON, whose deportment in a male character, was so free and elegant, whose figure was so proportionate and delicate, notwithstanding a voice unfavourable for declamation, must, in our opinion, stand foremost; her first scene was supported with an uncommon degree of spirited archness; her behaviour during Bassanio’s choice of the caskets, conveyed a strong picture of unstudied anxiety; the trial scene she sustained with amiable dignity, the speech upon mercy she marked as well as any body else; and, in the fifth act, she carried on the sham quarrel in a very laughable manner; to sum up all, while in petticoats, she shewed the woman of solid sense, and real fashion; when in breeches, the man of education, judgment and gentility—Mrs. ABINGTON treads so much in her steps, and has so many of the happy requisites just mentioned, that we make no scruple of placing her second upon the whole; nay, in some particular places, we think her equal.

Miss MACKLIN undoubtedly speaks the part in an unexceptionable manner, but we deem her rather too petit in person and expression; Mrs. CLIVE, who obtained no small share of applause, was a ludicrous burlesque on the character, every feature and limb contrasted the idea SHAKESPEARE gives us of Portia in the spirited scene she was clumsy, and spoke them in the same strain of chambermaid delicacy she did Lappet or Flippanta; in the grave part—sure never was such a female put into breeches before!—she was awkwardly dissonant; and, as if conscious she could not get through without the aid of trick, flew to the pitiful resource of taking off the peculiarity of some judge or noted lawyer; from which wise stroke, she created laughter in a scene where the deepest attention should be preserved, till Gratiano’s retorts upon the Jew, work a contrary effect.

Mrs. YATES, with an amazing degree of condescension has lately vouchsafed to perform Portia, for that night only—that night only, the phrase is so modest, that we repeat it—if she can do the part better than any body else, the public in general, and the managers in particular, have a right to expect her in it whenever the play is done; if she is not so capable as the person in possession of it, why should she impose upon her friends, even for one night; this is one out of many low, theatrical finesses, thrown out as baits to catch gudgeons; however, if this lady thinks criticism has any cause to languish for a repetition of her Portia, she is utterly mistaken -, since it is certain that, deducting her great name, and some merit in the fourth act, she has shewn nothing more than that capital talents may occasionally dwindle into very middling execution.

Comments: Francis Gentleman (1728-1784) was an Irish actor, playwright and theatrical commentator. His book The Dramatic Censor analyses the theatrical repertoire of the period, with assessments of the individual roles as played by the leading actors he had seen. The Irish actress Peg Woffington (1720-1760) first played Portia in London in 1743. The other actresses described are Frances Abington (1737-1815), who played Portia many times in the 1760s; Maria Macklin (1733-1781), who also played Portia frequently in the 1760s; Kitty Clive (1711-1785), who first performed Portia in 1741 and many times thereafter, despite regular comment that she was unsuited to the role; and tragic actress Mary Ann Yates (1728-1787), whose one-off benefit performance in The Merchant of Venice took place at Covent Garden on 27 March 1770.

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