Henry Morley

The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 56-59

Production: Charles Reade/Tom Taylor, Masks and Faces, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 27 November 1852

Text: November 27. – The new play at the HAYMARKET wants the scope and proportions of a regular English comedy, being in outline and structure of a French cast; but in character it is English, in sentiment thoroughly so, and its language and expression, whether of seriousness or humour, have the tone at once easy and earnest which truth gives to scholarship and wit.

The acting, too, is unusually good. There is a poor poet who doubles the scanty callings of painter and player, and whom Goldsmith could not have better described, or Leslie painted, than Mr. Webster acts him. The delicacy and strength of this performance took us by surprise. The humour and pathos closely neighbouring each other, smiles playing about the tears, and the mirth always trembling into sadness, belonged to most real art. And it was full of minute touches which showed the discrimination of the actor. For instance – that absurd air of helplessness, which the habit of incessant failure gives to a man. The poor starving author cannot hold even a couple of his own rejected tragedies in his hands without dropping one of them, nor pick up the straggler till its companion has tumbled after it.

The title of the comedy is ‘Masks and Faces, or Before and Behind the Curtain.’ Its heroine is Garrick’s favourite, Peg Woffington; whose attractive sprightliness, spirited independence, good understanding, and thoroughly good nature, distinguished her so favourably among the dames of the English theatre in the old days of the Sir Harry Wildairs and Lady Betty Modishes, and while yet the Iphigenias wore cherry-coloured silk over their large hoop petticoats. The drift of the little comedy is to show the good heart of the actress shining out through the disadvantage of her position and her calling, and rebuking the better fortune of those who have to struggle with no such temptations. There appears to be just now a great run upon such subjects with our French neighbours. Shut out by the censorship from most topics that trench upon the real world, French playwrights have betaken themselves in despair to the world of unreality, and now find their most popular subjects behind the scenes. They have just invented a model English actor at the Français, who by all sorts of nobility and propriety of conduct breaks down the most inveterate prejudices of caste; and at the Variétés they have reproduced a scamp of an actor of the infamous days of the Regency, who turns out to be after all the most interesting and fine-hearted rogue conceivable. In short, the Parisian spirit of the day, in these matters, is pretty much expressed in what one of our own wits used to be fond of contrasting in the fortunes of the two Duchesses of Bolton. The poor high-born lady, educated in solitude with choice of all good books, with a saintlike governess, and fairly crammed with virtue – what did it all come to? her husband despised her and the public laughed at her. Whereas the frank and fearless Polly, bred in an alehouse and produced on the stage, obtained not only wealth and title, but found the way to be esteemed, so that her husband respected and loved her, as the public had done before him.

The authors of ‘Masks and Faces’ (for there are two, Mr. Tom Taylor and Mr. Charles Reade) do not quite fall into this vein, however. They rather follow the example of the enthusiastic bishop, who, on hearing an actress of doubtful reputation sing divinely at an Oratorio, suddenly and loudly cried out, “Woman, thy sins be forgiven thee!” They do not suppress the sins of Mrs. Woffington, in the act of exhibiting what virtues as well as sorrows neighboured them; and, while they represent her with a touching sense of her own degradation, they have yet the courage to show her accepted for her virtues by the innocent and pure, and not disqualified by her vices to put conventional morality to shame. In a word, it is a very manly and right-minded little comedy; with matter of just reflection in it, as well as much mirth and amusement.

That is a charming scene where Peg visits the poor poet in his garret, while his ailing wife and starving children are sadly interrupting the flow of its comic muse. Nothing here was lost in Mr. Webster’s hands — the angry fretfulness followed by instant remorse, the efforts of self-restraint which are but efforts in vain, the energy that fitfully breaks out and then pitifully breaks down, and the final loss of hope, even of faith in a better providence which is to set right all that misery and wrong – the picture was complete, and set forth with its immemorial Grub-street appendages of no shirt and ragged but ample ruffles. An excellent touch, too, it was in this scene, when the poor, patient, sickly wife, nicely looked and played by Mrs. Leigh Murray, after rebuking her husband for his little outbreak of distrust in Providence, cannot help showing her own little jealousies and fellow-actress’s distrust of Mrs. Woffington. But Peg plays the part of Providence in the miserable garret, and in doing it Mrs. Stirling threw off all her too conscious airs and was really hearty and delightful. She gave the pathetic passages with genuine feeling, the mirthful with cordial enjoyment; and several heightening touches in both marked the personal sympathy and emotion with which the character appeared to have affected her.

The critics introduced are poor enough, and this part of the piece is here and there too long. Mr. Bland, moreover, who played Quin, exaggerated a mistake for which the writers had given him too much excuse, and made a mere loud, coarse, vulgar epicure of him. Quin was a gentleman and a man of wit. We remember him always as the patron as well as friend of the poet Thomson, and as the author of some of the very best things on record. Generally, however, the acting was very good. There was a little sketch of old Colley Cibber, by Mr. Lambert, particularly worth mention as observant and faithful.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. Tom Taylor and Charles Reade‘s 1852 Masks and Faces, which tells of the Irish actress Peg Woffington (1720-1760), was a great popular success and led Reade to produce his novel Peg Woffington the following year. Those appearing in the Haymarket Theatre production included Benjamin Nottingham Webster (as Triplet), Elizabeth Leigh Murray (Mrs Triplet), Mary Anne ‘Fanny’ Stirling (Peg), James Bland (Quin) and Mr Lambert (Cibber).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 92-99

Production: William Shakespeare (and George Wilkins?), Pericles, Sadler’s Wells, London, 21 October 1854

Text: October 21. [1854] — ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre,’ that Eastern romance upon which Shakespeare first tried his power as a dramatist, and which he may have re-adapted to the stage even while yet a youth at Stratford, has been produced at SADLER’S WELLS by Mr. Phelps, with the care due to a work especially of interest to all students of Shakespeare, and with the splendour proper to an Eastern spectacle.

The story was an old one; there is a version of it even in Anglo-Saxon. Gower had made it the longest story in his ‘Confessio Amantis,’ and the one told with the greatest care; and the dramatist in using it made use of Gower. The story was a popular one of an Eastern prince whose life is spent upon a sea of trouble. Everywhere he is pursued by misfortune. He seeks a beautiful wife at the risk of death, through the good old Eastern plan of earning her by answering a riddle. She proves a miracle of lust. He flies from her, and is pursued by the strong wrath of her father. To avoid this he is forced to become an exile from his house and people. He sails to Tharsus, where he brings liberal relief to a great famine, and is hailed as a saviour; but to Tharsus he is pursued by warnings of the coming wrath of his great enemy. Again he becomes a fugitive across the sea. The sea is pitiless and tosses him from coast to coast until it throws him ashore, the only man saved from the wreck of his vessel near Pentapolis. But in Pentapolis reigns a good king, whose daughter — still in the true fashion of a story book — is to be courted by a tourney between rival princes. Pericles would take part in such ambition, and the sea casts him up a suit of armour. He strives, and is victor. He excels all in the tourney, in the song, and in the dance; the king is generous and the daughter kind. But the shadow of his evil fate is still over Pericles. He distrusts a thing” so strange as happy fortune, and thinks of it only “’tis the king’s subtlety to have my life.” Fortune is, however, for once really on his side. He marries the Princess Thaisa, and, being afterwards informed that his great enemy is dead and that his own subjects rebel against his continued absence, he sets sail with her from Tyre.

The good gifts seem, however, only to have been granted by Fortune that she might increase his wretchedness tenfold by taking them away. The sea again “washes heaven and hell” when his ship is fairly launched upon it, and in a storm so terrible that

“the seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard,

the nurse brings on deck to Pericles a new-born infant, with the tidings that its mother Thaisa is dead. The sailors, believing that a corpse on board maintains the storm about the ship, demand that the dead queen be thrown into the sea. Most wretched queen! mourns the more wretched prince,

“A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire: the unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow’d to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin’d, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.”

Being at this time near Tharsus, however, and remembering that Tharsus owes to him a debt of gratitude, Pericles makes for Tharsus, in order that he may place his infant with the least possible delay upon sure ground and under tender nursing.

The daughter there grows up under her father’s evil star. “This world to me,” she says, “is like a lasting storm, whirring me from my friends.” The Queen of Tharsus becomes jealous and resolves to murder her. It is by the sea-shore that the deed is to be done. When Pericles comes for his child her tomb is shown to him, and under this last woe his mind breaks down. He puts to sea again with his wrecked spirit, and, though the sea again afflicts him with its storms, he rides them out.

I have not told the familiar story thus far for the sake of telling it, but for the sake of showing in the most convenient way what is really the true spirit of the play. At this point of the tale the fortune of Pericles suddenly changes. A storm of unexpected happiness breaks with immense force upon him. The sea and the tomb seem to give up their dead, and from the lowest depths of prostration the spirit of the Prince is exalted to the topmost height, in scenes which form most worthily the climax of the drama. “0 Helicanus,” he then cries,

“O Helicanus, strike me, honoured sir;
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys, rushing upon me,
O’erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness.”

In telling such a story as this Shakespeare felt, and, young as he may have been, his judgment decided rightly, that it should be shown distinctly as a tale such as

“Hath been sung at festivals,
On Ember eves and holy ales;”

and he therefore brought forward Gower himself very much in the character of an Eastern storyteller to begin the narrative and to carry it on to the end, subject to the large interruption of five acts of dramatic illustration. A tale was being told; every person was to feel that, although much of it would be told to the eye. But in the revival of the play Mr. Phelps was left to choose between two difficulties. The omission of Gower would be a loss to the play, in an artistic sense, yet the introduction of Gower before every act would very probably endanger its effect in a theatrical sense, unless the part were spoken by an actor of unusual power. The former plan was taken; and in adding to certain scenes in the drama passages of his own writing, strictly confined to the explanation of those parts of the story which Shakespeare represents Gower as narrating between the acts, Mr. Phelps may have used his best judgment as a manager. Certainly, unless he could have been himself the Gower as well as the Pericles of the piece, the frequent introduction of a story-telling gentleman in a long coat and long curls would have been an extremely hazardous experiment, even before such an earnest audience as that at Sadler’s Wells.

The change did inevitably, to a certain extent, disturb the poetical effect of the story; but assuming its necessity, it was effected modestly and well. The other changes also were in no case superfluous, and were made with considerable judgment. The two scenes at Mitylene, which present Marina pure as an ermine which no filth can touch, were compressed into one; and although the plot of the drama was not compromised by a false delicacy, there remained not a syllable at which true delicacy could have conceived offence. The calling of Blount and his Mistress was covered in the pure language of Marina with so hearty a contempt, that the scene was really one in which the purest minds might be those which would take the most especial pleasure.

The conception of the character of Pericles by Mr. Phelps seemed to accord exactly with the view just taken of the play. He was the Prince pursued by evil fate. A melancholy that could not be shaken off oppressed him even in the midst of the gay court of King Simonides, and the hand of Thaisa was received with only the rapture of a love that dared not feel assured of its good fortune. Mr. Phelps represented the Prince sinking gradually under the successive blows of fate, with an unostentatious truthfulness; but in that one scene which calls forth all the strength of the artist, the recognition of Marina and the sudden lifting of the Prince’s bruised and fallen spirit to an ecstacy of joy, there was an opportunity for one of the most effective displays of the power of an actor that the stage, as it now is, affords. With immense energy, yet with a true feeling for the pathos of the situation that had the most genuine effect, Mr. Phelps achieved in this passage a triumph marked by plaudit after plaudit. They do not applaud rant at Sadler’s Wells. The scene was presented truly by the actor and felt fully by his audience.

The youthful voice and person, and the quiet acting of Miss Edith Heraud, who made her début as Marina, greatly helped to set forth the beauty of that scene. The other parts had also been judiciously allotted, so that each actor did what he or she was best able to do, and did it up to the full measure of the ability of each. Miss Cooper gave much effect to the scene of the recovery of Thaisa, which was not less well felt by those who provided the appointments of the stage, and who marked that portion of the drama by many delicacies of detail.

Of the scenery indeed it is to be said that so much splendour of decoration is rarely governed by so pure a taste. The play, of which the text is instability of fortune, has its characteristic place of action on the sea. Pericles is perpetually shown (literally as well as metaphorically) tempest-tost, or in the immediate vicinity of the treacherous waters; and this idea is most happily enforced at Sadler’s Wells by scene-painter and machinist. They reproduce the rolling of the billows and the whistling of the winds when Pericles lies senseless, a wrecked man on a shore. When he is shown on board ship in the storm during the birth of Marina, the ship tosses vigorously. When he sails at last to the temple of Diana of the Ephesians, rowers take their places on their banks, the vessel seems to glide along the coast, an admirably-painted panorama slides before the eye, and the whole theatre seems to be in the course of actual transportation to the temple at Ephesus, which is the crowning scenic glory of the play. The dresses, too, are brilliant. As beseems an Eastern story, the events all pass among princes. Now the spectator has a scene presented to him occupied by characters who appear to have stepped out of a Greek vase; and presently he looks into an Assyrian palace and sees figures that have come to life and colour from the stones of Nineveh. There are noble banquets and glittering processions, and in the banquet-hall of King Simonides there is a dance which is a marvel of glitter, combinations of colour, and quaint picturesque effect. There are splendid trains of courtiers, there are shining rows of vestal virgins, and there is Diana herself in the sky.

We are told that the play of ‘Pericles’ enjoyed, for its own sake, when it first appeared, a run of popularity that excited the surprise and envy of some playwrights, and became almost proverbial. It ceased to be acted in the days of Queen Anne; and whether it would attract now as a mere acted play, in spite of the slight put upon it by our fathers and grandfathers, it is impossible to say, since the ‘Pericles’ of Sadler’s Wells may be said to succeed only because it is a spectacle.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. Morley saw actor-manager Samuel Phelps‘ production of Pericles at Sadler’s Wells on 21 October 1854, the play’s first staging since the seventeenth century (aside from George Lillo‘s 1738 adaptation Marina). The role of Gower was cut as well as some scenes expected to cause offence, as indicated by Morley, and some new scenes added. Of the named performers, Phelps played Pericles, Edith Heraud was Marina and Fanny Cooper was Thaisa.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of a London Playgoer

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 152-155

Production: William Shakespeare (et al), Timon of Athens, Sadler’s Wells, London, 18 October 1856

Text: October 18.— ‘Timon of Athens’ has been reproduced again by Mr. Phelps, with even more pains than were bestowed upon his former revival of that play, which, when he first produced it, had been acted but a few times since the days of Shakespeare. As now performed it is exceedingly effective.

A main cause of the success of Mr. Phelps in his Shakespearean revivals is, that he shows in his author above all things the poet. Shakespeare’s plays are always poems, as performed at Sadler’s Wells. The scenery is always beautiful, but it is not allowed to draw attention from the poet, with whose whole conception it is made to blend in the most perfect harmony. The actors are content also to be subordinated to the play, learn doubtless at rehearsals how to subdue excesses of expression that by giving undue force to one part would destroy the balance of the whole, and blend their work in such a way as to produce everywhere the right emphasis. If Mr. Phelps takes upon himself the character which needs the most elaborate development, however carefully and perfectly he may produce his own impression of his part, he never by his acting drags it out of its place in the drama. He takes heed that every part, even the meanest, shall have in the acting as much prominence as Shakespeare gave it in his plan, and it is for this reason that with actors, many of whom are anything but stars, the result most to be desired is really obtained. Shakespeare appears in his integrity, and his plays are found to affect audiences less as dramas in a common sense than as great poems.

This is the case especially with ‘Timon.’ It may be that one cause of its long neglect, as potent as the complaint that it excites no interest by female characters, is the large number of dramatis personae, to whom are assigned what many actors might consider parts of which they can make nothing, and who, being presented in a slovenly way, by a number of inferior performers, would leave only one part in the drama, and take all the power out of that. Such an objection has not, however, any weight at Sadler’s Wells, where every member of the company is taught to regard the poetry he speaks according to its nature rather than its quantity. The personators of the poet and the painter in the first scene of the ‘Timon,’ as now acted, manifestly say what Shakespeare has assigned to them to say with as much care, and as much certainty that it will be listened to with due respect, as if they were themselves Timons, Hamlets, or Macbeths. Nobody rants — it becomes his part that Alcibiades should be a little blustery — nothing is slurred; a servant who has anything to say says it in earnest, making his words heard and their meaning felt; and so it is, that, although only in one or two cases we may have observed at Sadler’s Wells originality of genius in the actor, we have nevertheless perceived something like the entire sense of one of Shakespeare’s plays, and have been raised above ourselves by the perception.

It is not because of anything peculiar in the air of Islington, or because an audience at Pentonville is made of men differing in nature from those who would form an audience in the Strand, that Shakespeare is listened to at Sadler’s Wells with reverence not shown elsewhere. What has been done at Islington could, if the same means were employed, be done at Drury Lane. But Shakespeare is not fairly heard when he is made to speak from behind masses of theatrical upholstery, or when it is assumed that there is but one character in any of his plays, and that the others may be acted as incompetent performers please. If the ‘Messiah’ were performed at Exeter Hall, with special care to intrust some of the chief solos to a good bass or contralto, the rest being left to chance, and members of the chorus allowed liberty to sing together in all keys, we should enjoy Handel much as we are sometimes asked to enjoy Shakespeare on the London stage. What Signor Costa will do for an orchestra, the manager must do for his company, if he would present a work of genius in such a way as to procure for it a full appreciation.

Such thoughts are suggested by the effect which ‘Timon of Athens’ is producing on the audiences at Sadler’s Wells. The play is a poem to them. The false friends, of whom one declares, “The swallow follows not summer more willing than we your lordship,” and upon whom Timon retorts, “Nor more willingly leaves winter,” are as old as the institution of society. Since men had commerce first together to the present time the cry has been, “Such summer birds are men.” The rush of a generous impulsive nature from one rash extreme into the other, the excesses of the man who never knew “the middle of humanity,” is but another common form of life; and when have men not hung — the poets, the philosophers, the lovers, the economists, men of all habits — over a contemplation of the contrast between that soft town life represented by the luxury of Athens in its wealth and its effeminacy, and the life of a man who, like Timon before his cave’s mouth, turns from gold because it is not eatable, and digs in the wood for roots? With a bold hand Shakespeare grasped the old fable of Timon, and moulded it into a form that expresses much of the perplexity and yearning of our nature. He takes up Timon, a free-handed and large-hearted lord, who, though “to Lacedaemon did his lands extend,” found them too little to content his restless wish to pour himself all out in kindness to his fellows. He leaves him dead by the shore of the mysterious eternal sea.

I do not dwell upon the play itself, for here the purpose only is to show in what way it can be made, when fitly represented — and is made at Sadler’s Wells — to stir the spirit as a poem. Mr. Phelps in his own acting of Timon treats the character as an ideal, as the central figure in a mystery. As the liberal Athenian lord, his gestures are large, his movements free — out of himself everything pours, towards himself he will draw nothing. As the disappointed Timon, whose love of his kind is turned to hate, he sits on the ground self-contained, but miserable in the isolation, from first to last contrasting with Apemantus, whom “fortune’s tender arm never with favour clasped,” who is a churl by the original sourness of his nature, hugs himself in his own ragged robe, and worships himself for his own ill manners. Mr. Marston’s Apemantus is well acted, and helps much to secure a right understanding of the entire play.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. He saw William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at Sadler’s Wells, London, on 18 October 1856. Samuel Phelps had first revised Timon of Athens in 1851 and again in 1856.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of a London Playgoer

"Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle." Gebbie & Co., copyright 1887. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle.” Gebbie & Co., copyright 1887. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Source: Henry Morley, The Journal of a London Playgoer: from 1851-1866 (London: George Routledge, 1866), pp. 376-380

Production: Dion Boucicault, Rip Van Winkle, Adelphi Theatre, London, 23 September 1865

Text: September 23. — Mr. Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle is preceded by the Nan of Mrs. Mellon (Miss Woolgar) in ‘Good for Nothing;’ and that picture of the true-hearted, neglected girl, who plays hopscotch with the street boys, and when the woman’s heart in her is touched with jealousy, breaks awkwardly out of her tattered slovenliness, familiar to London eyes as are the actress and the part, is set before us in a piece of acting certainly as good as the new actor’s Rip Van Winkle.

Mr. Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle is Washington Irving’s, set in a play that seeks dramatic effect by tasteless variations from the tale as Irving told it. As the village schoolmaster in ‘Deborah’ was transformed for the American ‘Leah’ into a conventional stage villain, so here the harmless schoolmaster, Derrick Van Bummel, is selected for the villain’s part. The first act is brought to a melodramatic close by Rip‘s wife driving her husband from her hearth into a thunderstorm. He goes out snivelling. She of course cries in vain to him to return, and, as the curtain descends, plumps on the ground in the orthodox melodramatic swoon. This may be great improvement in the eyes of an American audience; but an English audience, with a really good actor before them, would have entered, perhaps, quite as readily into the original notion of Rip‘s wandering off for a lazy autumn scramble, escaped from the labour of the farm and his wife’s clamour.

In the second act we have the adventure on the mountains with the ghost of the old discoverer of Hudson river and his solemn crew of nine-pin players. Here the story is closely followed, except in the poor melodramatic change that substitutes for Rip‘s attendance on the company and his sly pulls at their flagon, a formal attendance of the company upon him as the drinker, and the conventional Ha! ha! ha! ha! when he drinks. The original story made them absolutely mute, allowing no sound but the thunder produced by the rolling of their bowls. The adapter, however, having ghosts on hand, could not dispense with the conventional effect of the Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!

In the third act all the delicacies of the rest of the story are smothered in the garlic and onions of the melodramatist. Yet all this latter part of it is precisely the dramatic part of the original. The happy notion of making the American revolution fall within the twenty years of Rip‘s sleep, and bringing the dazed man, who had left his village as a subject of King George, back into the bustle of a republican electioneering crowd, for which the story supplies figures ready sketched, would suit the humour alike of a good dramatist and a fine actor. Surely there can be no actor of high mark who would not rather have his Rip left on a bench, astonishing the gossips by the door of Doolittle’s hotel, than presented with the claptrap effects of a wife who has been borrowed and improved during his absence, and a magnificent collection of town lots to make him happy ever after. As an actor, Mr. Jefferson marks Rip‘s weakness of character by giving very skilfully an air of picturesque and easy indolence to all his postures and movements, while his good-humoured Dutch English is spoken with a quiet laziness. When, as he sits out of doors by the innkeeper’s table, the innkeeper’s little son Hendrick tells him how he means to go to sea in a whaling ship, and has promised to come home and marry Rip‘s little daughter Meenie, and the two children kneeling at Rip‘s knees tell of their true love, the twinkle of humour in Rip‘s way of listening to them, as one who finds a quiet luxury in his admission to communion with children’s happy thoughts, and his nod to them over a wine-cup with his customary toast, “Well, here’s your health and your family’s. May they live long and be happy,” is acted with much quiet delicacy. In the scene with his wife in the cottage – the wife’s part being so acted by Mrs. Billington as to be one of her marked successes – it is impossible to cover the defect of bad invention by the dramatist. A long story about shooting at a rabbit and not hitting it is very tedious fun, and it is but a coarse stage effect to make Rip drink out of a spirit flask over his wife’s back while she is embracing him because he has again “swored off” his evil habit. Rip was goodhearted, and his faults came of his laziness. Such a situation, though it may be a broad stage effect, degrades him far too low. It was necessary, it – may be said, to degrade Rip in this and other ways to account for his wife’s turning him out of doors into a thunderstorm. But it is a pity that the dramatist could not deny himself that incident, and be content to carry through from first to last the lazy humour of the story.

In the second act, Mr. Jefferson, as Rip van Winkle among the ghosts, acts as well as the dramatist will let him. But the words put in his mouth are poor, and the variations from the original story are in a dramatic sense, for the worse. Rip falls to his twenty years’ sleep, and the ghosts leave him.

The opening of the third act shows him at his awakening with rotten clothes and long white hair and beard, – an exaggeration not required. The story had said that his beard was grey, and grey would be, in the dramatic rendering, more truly effective. The drama in this act is at its poorest, but Mr. Jefferson is at his best. Retaining his old Dutch English with a somewhat shriller pipe of age in its tone, he quietly makes the most of every opportunity of representing the old man’s bewilderment. His timid approaches to an understanding of the change he finds, his faint touch of the sorrow of old love in believing his wife dead, and reaction into humorous sense of relief, his trembling desire and dread of news about his daughter, and, in a later scene, the pathos of his appeal to her for recognition, are all delicately true. It is doubtful whether, in such a drama, more could be done by the best effort of genius to represent the Rip van Winkle of whom Washington Irving tells. It is certain that in a play more closely in accordance with the spirit of the story, Mr. Jefferson’s success, real as it is, would have been yet more conspicuous.

Comments: Henry Morley (1822-1894) was a British academic and writer. He was Professor of English at University College London from 1865-1889. His Journal is a record of his attendance at most new production in the leading London theatres over a fifteen-year period. The journal he kept served as the basis for his dramatic reviews in The Examiner, which he edited 1859-1864. The production of Rip Van Winkle that he saw was produced at the Adelphi Theatre, London, 23 September 1865. Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) was one of the great figures of the American stage in the nineteenth century, most celebrated for playing Rip Van Winkle for four decades. There were various adaptations of Washington Irving‘s story that Jefferson originally used, but the production first seen in London on 5 September 1865 had been significantly revised by Dion Boucicault and formed the basis of his success in the part thereafter.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust