Laughter

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Source: A French Travekker [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. 258-259

Production: Thomas Morton, The Cure for the Heart-ache and George Colman the Younger, The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; or, The Rover of Weimar, Haymarket Theatre, London, July 1811

Text: The comedy called the Cure for the Heart-ache was acted yesterday at the theatre of the Hay-market. Elliston and Munden appeared in it, and gave us great pleasure, although they exaggerated the exaggerations of the play. But the taste of the English public requires this, — as thistles alone have power to stimulate the palate of certain animals. The object of the petite piece called the Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh, was to ridicule the perverted morality and sentiments of the German drama, and at the same time the exhibition of horses on the stage. One of the personages has two wives, and one of the wives two husbands. One of the husbands, a prisoner in the castle of a merciless tyrant (Duke of Saxe Weimar) is liberated by the other husband, for no other apparent purpose but to get rid of one of his wives. He besieges the castle with a troop of horse, and batters down its walls with pistol-shot. The horses consist of a head and a tail, fastened before and behind the performers, with two sham legs of the rider, dangling about on each side, and a deep housing hiding the real legs. All the cant, childishness, grossness, and crude philosophy of the German drama was, of course, mustered together, and excited much risibility; the horses climbed walls, leapt, kicked, fought, lay down, and died, as Mr Kemble’s horses might have done. All this was very ridiculous, — but I am not sure that the laugh of the audience was not more with the thing ridiculed, than at it. The English public is not easily burlesqued out of its pleasures, and to it a caricature is still a likeness. Some friends of the real quadrupeds hissed, but clapping got the better. The pale face and nares acutissimae of the ex-minister, Mr Canning was pointed out to us in the next box, in company with Lord M.; he laughed very heartily, — and the nature of the laugh of the author of the Antijacobin could not be mistaken.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The productions he saw at the Haymarket were Thomas Morton‘s comedy The Cure for the Heart-Ache, with Robert Elliston and Joseph Munden, and the afterpiece The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; or, The Rover of Weimar, by George Colman the Younger. This was a parody of Timour the Tartar, a popular equistrian afterpiece by M.G. ‘Monk’ Lewis which had been put on at Covent Garden. The British politician (and future Prime Minister) George Canning had founded the newspaper The Anti-Jacobin and had written a dramatic parody, The Rovers, from which Colman borrowed ideas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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. 92

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Nahum Tate), King Lear and Harlequin Pedlar; or, The Haunted Well, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 12 January 1810

Text: Friday, 12 January [1810]

When my friends gathered at the house, Sir Gore Ouseley told me that tonight they planned to take me to a theatre called Covent Garden. Some time ago the theatre was destroyed by fire; it has been rebuilt with the help of a donation of 200,000 tomans from the King.

And so we went there. On either side of the lofty stage there are galleries with painted ceilings. Although somewhat smaller than the Opera, the decoration is more elaborate. Musicians banished sorrow from our hearts with their songs. It seemed to me strange that the audience reacted to some of the tunes with such boisterous applause that it could be heard by the Cherubim in heaven, but to others they appeared totally deaf.

The manager of the theatre, Mr Kemble, acted the part of a King of Britain Who divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, leaving the third without a share. In the end, however, the first two daughters show themselves ungrateful to their father, and the disinherited but dutiful daughter escapes from the bondage of her wicked sisters with the help of a general’s son – a marquis – who is in love with her. When she succeeds to the throne, she accepts him as her husband.

Next, several multi-coloured curtains were lowered, and from behind these curtains – in the manner of Iranian acrobats – appeared the fantastic figures of divs and peris, of birds and beasts. No one watching their antics could possibly have retained his composure. Grimaldi, a famous clown, performed an act which I shall never forget: he would leap from a high Window and just as easily leap back up again, returning each time as a different character and causing the noble audience to laugh uncontrollably.

Walking around the theatre, my companions and I saw beautiful ladies, beautifully dressed, casting flirtatious glances from their boxes. Then We left the theatre by the King’s door and came home.

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. The version of King Lear that he saw, with John Philip Kemble playing Lear, was the adaptation by Nahum Tate with happy ending. The concluding harlequinade was Harlequin Pedlar; or, The Haunted Well, featuring the highly popular comic performer Joseph Grimaldi.

Journal 1935-1944

Source: Mihail Sebastian (trans. Patrick Camiller), Journal 1935-1944 (London: Pimlico, 2003, orig. pub. 1996), pp. 188-189

Production: Mihail Sebastian, Jocul de-a vacanţa, Comoedia theatre, Bucharest, 17 October 1938

Text: Monday, 17 [October 1938]

Sunday evening’s performance was the last performance. They’ve played the dirty trick of putting Ionescu G. Maria back on for the last two days before the tour, yesterday and today. So now the impression is given that I’ve been taken down from the boards and replaced with an old play – as if it would have been such a disaster to keep me on for another couple of days! For a moment I was quite indignant. But then it passed. In the end, I don’t want to make a tragedy out of anything that’s happened to me at the theatre.

It’s been an adventure – and now it’s over. I didn’t gain a lot from it, nor did I lose much.

On Saturday evening, at the last performance but one, I watched the whole play for the first time since the Sunday immediately after the premiere. I’ve seen bits of each act at various times, depending on when I dropped by the theatre on my way back from the cinema or to see Leni. But I have only twice seen the play from beginning to end. I’m used to it by now, and it is almost impossible for me to judge it. The image of this production has almost completely covered the image I originally had of it. At first the differences between my conception and the stage performance were quite glaring. Little by little, however, the actors’ gestures (even if they were wrong) and their tones of voice (even if they were false) substituted themselves for what I had imagined at the time of writing. Sometimes I’d have liked to protest, to get them back on the right track, to restore my original text, to force them to act the play I actually wrote – but it would have meant too great an effort, and I wasn’t even sure it was worth it.

On Sunday evening I again watched the third act – for the last time! I was in the balcony, from where the stage appears far off and for that very reason somehow magical, and sometimes I shut my eyes to listen the words. Maybe it was the thought that this really was the last time, that none of these words would be spoken again, that they would remain in a typewritten file or, at best, in a printed book – maybe all these thoughts, with their sense of leave-taking, made me listen with emotion for the first time. I said to myself that something was dying, departing forever, breaking loose from me. Never again will I see the audience’s heads turned toward the stage, in the silence of an occupied auditorium, in the darkness broken only by the footlights, listening, taking in, echoing, answering the words written by me. Never again will I hear that laughter rise in warm animation toward the stage.

Next to me a girl was crying. She is the last girl who will cry for Jocul de-a vacanţa.

Comments: Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was the pen-name of the Jewish Romanian playwright and noveliest Iosif Hechter. Sebastian’s journal, not published until 1996 – when it gained huge acclaim – records the rise of Fascism in Romania through to the Second World War, the fall of the dictator Ion Antonescu’s fascist government on 23 August 1944, and Romania joining the Allies. Sebastian suffered from anti-Semitic persecution, but survived the war, only to die in a motor accident in May 1945. Jocul de-a vacanţa, or Holiday Games, was his first play. He was romantically involved with actress Leni Caler, who appeared in the production.

Outline

Little Tich filmed in Paris in 1900 by Clément-Maurice, via Wikipedia

Little Tich filmed in Paris in 1900 by Clément-Maurice, via Wikipedia

Source: Paul Nash, Outline: An Autobiography (London: Columbus Books, 1988 [orig. pub. 1949]), pp. 170-172

Text: As we took our seats, the orchestra struck up one of those brisk and merry tunes which are inseparable from Tich’s public personality – a very different personality from his private character which was rather grave and inclined to studiousness. Tich, as we and the world knew him, was an expression of comic genius, and he was, without question, what is so often glibly claimed for such ‘artistes’, a true artist. He was able to be funny in so many ways – in appearance – his physical appearance in itself was a considerable creative comic gesture of chance or design. Only four feet high, a face rather like Punch’s but more intelligent, agile as a mongoose, but capable of the most absurd and alarming tumbles and gestures, and then a voice of modulations from shrill girlish piping to guttural innuendoes and sibilant ‘doubles entendres’. But his strangest most compelling asset were his feet. these I think were normal in themselves, but were habitually inserted into the most monstrous boots, long, narrow, and flat, so long that he could bow from the boots and lean over at almost an acute angle from his heels. At the same time they were so flat and pliable that Tich could flap and slap with them in a kind of tap dancing that was never known before or since. The scene tonight was a familiar one – a street with a background of houses and trees. On the right-hand wing, a corner house with an area and a grating. Tich has on his fantastic boots and his little comic hat and he waves and waggles his little swagger cane. With this equipment he can make you laugh and can fascinate you endlessly with his nimble dancing and twittering songs. Presently he will inadvertently hit his long boot with his cane and his surprise and pain will be unbearably funny. Suddenly he sees the grating. At once the gay, innocent comic becomes a mischievous little monster, all leers and terrible chuckles. Turning his back he leans over his boots – which is funny enough in itself – he peers through the grating and begins to show signs of naughty excitement, his little stick held casually behind his back somehow begins to look like a little dog’s tail which begins to wag with pleasure. The audience is not slow to get all these signs and they laugh and hoot and whistle rude whistles. Tich is delighted with his peep show and, as the band begins to play its catching tune again, he begins to sing:-

‘Curi-uri-uri-osity, curiosity,
Most of us are curious,
Some of us furious,
I do think it’s most injurious
Curious to be.
What did I get married for,
Curiosity.’

After this Tich makes some patter and when the chorus breaks out again, there is a crescendo of laughter and applause. Tich becomes tremendously animated and does a wonderful little dance, slapping his boots together in mid-air. He throws up his hat and in his ecstasy throws away his little stick. This aberration suddenly halts the whole show. The band stops: while Tich tries to move towards recovering his hat but hesitates and turns to the direction of his stick, and then changes his mind again, and so on, until he is demented with worry. However, the band creep in sotto voce and this seems to encourage him to pick up his stick firmly. But as he stoops to gather up his hat, the toe of his long boot pushes the hat ahead, sometimes it goes only just out of reach, sometimes it positively jumps like a frog, Then suddenly Tich either kicks it, or hits it in a miraculous way so that it spins into the air and he catches it on his head. This is the signal for the band to open up again. Tich resumes his dance and amid a storm of applause the turn is over.

Comments: Paul Nash (1889-1946) was a British artist, linked to the Surrealists, and serving as an official war artist in both world wars. His unfinished autobiography was published posthumously in 1949, ending just before the First World War with memories of this visit to the Oxford Music Hall in London. Harry Relph (1867-1928), known professionally as ‘Little Tich‘ was one of the great figures of the English music hall. He was four feet six inches high, and his best-known turn was the ‘big boots’ routine.

The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895

(L-R) Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

(L-R) Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Archer, The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895 (London: W. Scott, 1896), pp. 456-60

Production: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, St James’s Theatre, London, 20 February 1895

Text: The dramatic critic is not only a philosopher, moralist, assthetician, and stylist, but also a labourer working for his hire. In this last capacity he cares nothing for the classifications of Aristotle, Polonius, or any other theorist, but instinctively makes a fourfold division of the works which come within his ken. These are his categories: (1) Plays which are good to see. (2) Plays which are good to write about. (3) Plays which are both. (4) Plays which are neither. Class 4 is naturally the largest; Class 3 the smallest; and Classes 1 and 2 balance each other pretty evenly. Mr. Oscar Wilde’s new comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, belongs indubitably to the first class. It is delightful to see, it sends wave after wave of laughter curling and foaming round the theatre; but as a text for criticism it is barren and delusive. It is like a mirage-oasis in the desert, grateful and comforting to the weary eye — but when you come close up to it, behold! it is intangible, it eludes your grasp. What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality? Mr. Pater, I think (or is it some one else?), has an essay on the tendency of all art to verge towards, and merge in, the absolute art – music. He might have found an example in The Importance of Being Earnest, which imitates nothing, represents nothing, means nothing, is nothing, except a sort of rondo capriccioso, in which the artist’s fingers run with crisp irresponsibility up and down the keyboard of life. Why attempt to analyse and class such a play? Its theme, in other hands, would have made a capital farce; but “farce” is far too gross and commonplace a word to apply to such an iridescent filament of fantasy. Incidents of the same nature as Algy Moncrieffe’s [sic] “Bunburying” and John Worthing’s invention and subsequent suppression of his scapegrace brother Ernest have done duty in many a French vaudeville and English adaptation; but Mr. Wilde’s humour transmutes them into something entirely new and individual. Amid so much that is negative, however, criticism may find one positive remark to make. Behind all Mr. Wilde’s whim and even perversity, there lurks a very genuine science, or perhaps I should rather say instinct, of the theatre. In all his plays, and certainly not least in this one, the story is excellently told and illustrated with abundance of scenic detail. Monsieur Sarcey himself (if Mr. Wilde will forgive my saying so) would “chortle in his joy” over John Worthing’s entrance in deep mourning (even down to his cane) to announce the death of his brother Ernest, when we know that Ernest in the flesh — a false but undeniable Ernest — is at that moment in the house making love to Cecily. The audience does not instantly awaken to the meaning of his inky suit, but even as he marches solemnly down the stage, and before a word is spoken, you can feel the idea kindling from row to row, until a “sudden glory” of laughter fills the theatre. It is only the born playwright who can imagine and work up to such an effect. Not that the play is a masterpiece of construction. It seemed to me that the author’s invention languished a little after the middle of the second act, and that towards the close of that act there were even one or two brief patches of something almost like tediousness. But I have often noticed that the more successful the play, the more a first-night audience is apt to be troubled by inequalities of workmanship, of which subsequent audiences are barely conscious. The most happily-inspired scenes, coming to us with the gloss of novelty upon them, give us such keen pleasure, that passages which are only reasonably amusing are apt to seem, by contrast, positively dull. Later audiences, missing the shock of surprise which gave to the master-scenes their keenest zest, are also spared our sense of disappointment in the flatter passages, and enjoy the play more evenly all through. I myself, on seeing a play a second time, have often been greatly entertained by scenes which had gone near to boring me on the first night. When I see Mr. Wilde’s play again, I shall no doubt relish the last half of the second act more than I did on Thursday evening; and even then I differed from some of my colleagues who found the third act tedious. Mr. Wilde is least fortunate where he drops into Mr. Gilbert’s Palace-of-Truth mannerism, as he is apt to do in the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily. Strange what a fascination this trick seems to possess for the comic playwright! Mr. Pinero, Mr. Shaw, and now Mr. Wilde, have all dabbled in it, never to their advantage. In the hands of its inventor it produces pretty effects enough;

But Gilbert’s magic may not copied be;
Within that circle none should walk but he.

The acting is as hard to write about as the play. It is all good; but there is no opportunity for any striking excellence. The performers who are most happily suited are clearly Mr. Allan Aynesworth and Miss Rose Leclercq, both of whom are delightful. Mr. Alexander gives his ambition a rest, and fills his somewhat empty part with spirit and elegance. Miss Irene Vanbrugh makes a charmingly sophisticated maiden of Mayfair, and Miss Evelyn Millard, if not absolutely in her element as the unsophisticated Cecily, is at least graceful and pleasing. Mrs. Canninge and Mr. H.H. Vincent complete a very efficient cast.

Comments: William Archer (1856-1924) was a Scottish theatre critic and translator of Ibsen. His reviews for the World were collected in annual volumes as The Theatrical ‘World’ of… The first performance of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest at the St. James’s Theatre, London was on 14 February 1895. The cast included Allan Aynesworth (Algernon Moncrieff), George Alexander (John Worthing), Rose Leclercq (Lady Bracknell), Irene Vanbrugh (Gwendolen Fairfax), Evelyn Millard (Cecily Cardew), Mrs. George Canninge (Miss Prism) and H.H. Vincent (Canon Chasuble).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 352

Production: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Berliner Theatre, Berlin, 27 October 1928

Text: Saw Reinhardt’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Berliner Theatre. An incredible muddle. So much intellect and so many bright ideas that the upshot is an inferior provincial performance. A Palladian setting, with Juliet’s bedroom in the courtyard between screens and the balcony scene acted backstage so that Romeo’s words are totally inaudible and Juliet’s nearly so. Dreadful. At one point, during Juliet’s duologue with the Nurse, the audience broke into loud laughter. Elisabeth Bergner and the Nurse, greatly upset, rushed offstage between the screens and an interminable pause followed, with the house lights left down, while presumably Juliet was being soothed by some manager or other in the wings. The production had an icy reception, except from an obvious claque. At the end the real members of the public, including those in the more expensive seats left without applauding. Young Franz Lederer and Elisabeth Bergner make a handsome pair (he bears a striking resemblance to Byron), but that is all the performance has to offer.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Kessler saw Max Reinhardt‘s production of Romeo and Juliet starring Elisabeth Bergner and Franz Lederer, at the Berliner Theatre, Berlin, on 27 October 1928.