Laughter

Travels in England in 1782

1783 drawing of the original Haymarket Theatre, via Charles John Smith, Historical and Literary Curiosities (1847)

Source: Charles P. Moritz [Karl Philipp Moritz], Travels in England in 1782 (London: Cassell, 1886), pp. 73-74, orig. pub. Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782 (1783) and in English as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend (1795)

Productions: Samuel Foote, The Nabob and Samuel Arnold/John O’Keefe, The Agreeable Surprise, Haymarket Theatre, London, 4 June 1782; and George Colman (the elder), The English Merchant and The Agreeable Surprise, 15 June 1782

Text: Last week I went twice to an English play-house. The first time “The Nabob” was represented, of which the late Mr. Foote was the author, and for the entertainment, a very pleasing and laughable musical farce, called “The Agreeable Surprise.” The second time I saw “The English Merchant:” which piece has been translated into German, and is known among us by the title of “The Scotchwoman,” or “The Coffee-house.” I have not yet seen the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, because they are not open in summer. The best actors also usually spend May and October in the country, and only perform in winter.

A very few excepted, the comedians whom I saw were certainly nothing extraordinary. For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom. Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence. At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up. I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside, with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one. Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool. In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

In Foote’s “Nabob” there are sundry local and personal satires which are entirely lost to a foreigner. The character of the Nabob was performed by a Mr. Palmer. The jett of the character is, this Nabob, with many affected airs and constant aims at gentility, is still but a silly fellow, unexpectedly come into the possession of immense riches, and therefore, of course, paid much court to by a society of natural philosophers, Quakers, and I do not know who besides. Being tempted to become one of their members, he is elected, and in order to ridicule these would-be philosophers, but real knaves, a fine flowery fustian speech is put into his mouth, which he delivers with prodigious pomp and importance, and is listened to by the philosophers with infinite complacency. The two scenes of the Quakers and philosophers, who, with countenances full of imaginary importance, were seated at a green table with their president at their head while the secretary, with the utmost care, was making an inventory of the ridiculous presents of the Nabob, were truly laughable. One of the last scenes was best received: it is that in which the Nabob’s friend and school-fellow visit him, and address him without ceremony by his Christian name; but to all their questions of “Whether he does not recollect them? Whether he does not remember such and such a play; or such and such a scrape into which they had fallen in their youth?” he uniformly answers with a look of ineffable contempt, only, “No sir!” Nothing can possibly be more ludicrous, nor more comic.

The entertainment, “The Agreeable Surprise,” is really a very diverting farce. I observed that, in England also, they represent school-masters in ridiculous characters on the stage, which, though I am sorry for, I own I do not wonder at, as the pedantry of school-masters in England, they tell me, is carried at least as far as it is elsewhere. The same person who, in the play, performed the school-fellow of the Nabob with a great deal of nature and original humour, here acted the part of the school-master: his name is Edwin, and he is, without doubt, one of the best actors of all that I have seen.

This school-master is in love with a certain country girl, whose name is Cowslip, to whom he makes a declaration of his passion in a strange mythological, grammatical style and manner, and to whom, among other fooleries, he sings, quite enraptured, the following air, and seems to work himself at least up to such a transport of passion as quite overpowers him. He begins, you will observe, with the conjugation, and ends with the declensions and the genders; the whole is inimitably droll:

Amo, amas,
I love a lass,
She is so sweet and tender,
It is sweet Cowslip’s Grace
In the Nominative Case.
And in the feminine Gender.

Those two sentences in particular, “in the Nominative Case,” and “in the feminine Gender,” he affects to sing in a particularly languishing air, as if confident that it was irresistible. This Edwin, in all his comic characters, still preserves something so inexpressibly good-tempered in his countenance, that notwithstanding all his burlesques and even grotesque buffoonery, you cannot but be pleased with him. I own, I felt myself doubly interested for every character which he represented. Nothing could equal the tone and countenance of self-satisfaction with which he answered one who asked him whether he was a scholar? “Why, I was a master of scholars.” A Mrs. Webb represented a cheesemonger, and played the part of a woman of the lower class so naturally as I have nowhere else ever seen equalled. Her huge, fat, and lusty carcase, and the whole of her external appearance seemed quite to be cut out for it.

Poor Edwin was obliged, as school-master, to sing himself almost hoarse, as he sometimes was called on to repeat his declension and conjugation songs two or three times, only because it pleased the upper gallery, or “the gods,” as the English call them, to roar out “encore.” Add to all this, he was farther forced to thank them with a low bow for the great honour done him by their applause.

One of the highest comic touches in the piece seemed to me to consist in a lie, which always became more and more enormous in the mouths of those who told it again, during the whole of the piece. This kept the audience in almost a continual fit of laughter. This farce is not yet printed, or I really think I should be tempted to venture to make a translation, or rather an imitation of it.

“The English Merchant, or the Scotchwoman,” I have seen much better performed abroad than it was here. Mr. Fleck, at Hamburg, in particular, played the part of the English merchant with more interest, truth, and propriety than one Aickin did here. He seemed to me to fail totally in expressing the peculiar and original character of Freeport; instead of which, by his measured step and deliberate, affected manner of speaking, he converted him into a mere fine gentleman.

The trusty old servant who wishes to give up his life for his master he, too, had the stately walk, or strut, of a minister. The character of the newspaper writer was performed by the same Mr. Palmer who acted the part of the Nabob, but every one said, what I thought, that he made him far too much of a gentleman. His person, and his dress also, were too handsome for the character.

The character of Amelia was performed by an actress, who made her first appearance on the stage, and from a timidity natural on such an occasion, and not unbecoming, spoke rather low, so that she could not everywhere be heard; “Speak louder! speak louder!” cried out some rude fellow from the upper-gallery, and she immediately, with infinite condescension, did all she could, and not unsuccessfully, to please even an upper gallery critic.

The persons near me, in the pit, were often extravagantly lavish of their applause. They sometimes clapped a single solitary sentiment, that was almost as unmeaning as it was short, if it happened to be pronounced only with some little emphasis, or to contain some little point, some popular doctrine, a singularly pathetic stroke, or turn of wit.

“The Agreeable Surprise” was repeated, and I saw it a second time with unabated pleasure. It is become a favourite piece, and always announced with the addition of the favourite musical farce. The theatre appeared to me somewhat larger than the one at Hamburg, and the house was both times very full. Thus much for English plays, play-houses, and players.

Comments: Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) was a German essayist and literary critic. He visited England over June/July 1782, publishing an account of his travels as Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782 in 1783, which was published in English as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend (1795). The above comes from this translation, though improved translations have been published subsequently. He first visited the Haymarket on 4 June 1782, where he saw Samuel Foote‘s comedy The Nabob and Samuel Arnold and John O’Keefe‘s comic opera afterpiece The Agreeable Surprise. He returned on 15 June 1782 to see George Colman the Elder‘s The Englishman Merchant, followed by a repeat performance of The Agreeable Surprise. The performers described include John Palmer, John Edwin and (presumably) James Aickin.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

A Diary in the East During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales

The Khedivial Opera House, Cairo, in 1869, via Wikipedia

Source: William Howard Russell, A Diary in the East During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1869), pp. 114-116

Text: After dinner there was a performance at the theatre, to which the Prince and Princess and suite went. The Viceroy received them at the opera-house, and sat with them during the performance. It was not a theatre paré, but all the officers of state were present, and the house was tolerably well filled. In the pit there was an audience, most of them wearing the fez, a few the Coptic turban, others dressed in European fashion; no ladies. The boxes presented little to distinguish them, but for the intrusion of the inevitable tarboosh, and the quaint head-dress and faces of the negro servitors. Four boxes were set apart for the suite. Directly opposite the Prince and Princess were two large boxes, next the stage, in front of which was a lattice-work, from top to bottom, close and fine — so close, indeed, as to render it impossible for a searching opera-glass to pierce its mysteries. These boxes were not empty, for a certain variation of colour in the background, and a play of bright hues inside, showed that the ladies of the harem, nearly invisible to the outer world, were inside seeing everything. Was it because a gap at the lattice-work allowed a curious stranger to get a glimpse of a face within, that an envious mat was suddenly thrust into it by a black-faced, beardless gentleman in attendance? It is said that the Viceroy is meditating a great coup. That lattice-work is some day to disappear, and the ladies of the court are to sit unveiled in the presence of the people. But that day, from all I can hear, must be long distant. The pieces — “Le Serment d’Horace” and “Contributions Indirectes” — imported from the Palais Royal, seemed not unsuited to the Cairo audience. They took the points, laughed at the jokes, applauded the morceaux when the Viceroy deigned to nod; and if there was a little broadness of tone in dialogue and acting, there was certainly nothing of the wantonness of undress which we see at home in Christmas pantomimes. The theatre is about the size of the Haymarket. There is a café attached to it, a restaurant, a bouquetière, bills of the play, and a saloon where smokers congregate between the acts. And when you go out into the street, there is the fellah lying on the bare earth, wrapped in his cloak, and the wild dogs baying the moon, and the police calling out the Arab watchwords of the night.

Comments: William Howard Russell (1820-1907) was an Irish war reporter, famed for his dispatches from the Crimean War. In 1869 he accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward II and Queen Alexandra) on a visit to Egypt, which he covered in The Times and his subsequent book A Diary in the East. The plays they saw at the Khedivial Opera House were Henri Murger‘s Le Serment d’Horace and Les contributions indirectes by Henri Thiéry and Hippolyte Cogniard. The opera house had opened only recently (November 1869), having been built to mark the opening of the Suez Canal.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

An East End Music-Hall

Source: Robert Machray, The Night Side of London (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902), pp. 112-124

Text: AN EAST END MUSIC-HALL

Let youth, more decent in their follies, scoff
The nauseous scene, and hiss thee reeling off.”

Steele, The Tatler, No. 266.

The music-hall must be considered a chief feature of the Night Side of London; it is certainly one of the most popular, whether in the West End or the East. Its leading comedian, Mr. Dan Leno, has been honoured by a “command” of the King. It is a far cry, however, from the humour and whimsicalities of “good old Dan” to the comicalities of the typical East End music-hall star. But it matters not whether the hall is within a stone’s throw of Piccadilly or outside the radius, it is ever a popular institution. One of the sights of the town is the long queue of people standing outside the Alhambra, the Empire, the Palace, the Tivoli, the “Pav.,” the Oxford, and other halls, until the
doors leading to pit and gallery are thrown open. The queue often has to wait for a considerable time, sometimes in the pouring rain, but it does so with wonderful patience and good-humour — the wait being frequently enlivened by the strains of the n[—–] minstrel, or some other open-air entertainer. To-night you shall go to the Palace of Varieties at Greenwich. Last night you were at Deptford, and now you travel half a mile or more further south-eastward. Perhaps you begin this particular evening with a fish-dinner at the famous Ship, just opposite Greenwich Hospital, and though the Ship is not quite the fashionable resort it once was, you may do a great deal worse than dine there.

You make your way to the Palace of Varieties, Greenwich. You are. perhaps, a trifle late, and on inquiry you find the only seats left are “fauteuils,” price one-and-six. For a thorough appreciation of the humours of the scene you should have come earlier and got a place in the gallery, price threepence. But you have no option, so you plunge recklessly, and bang goes one-and-sixpence. The fauteuils prove to be seats in the front row, and those vacant when you arrive are immediately behind the conductor of the orchestra. Well, you are a bit too near the music, but there is some compensation, for you are able to see how the conductor conducts and at the same time adds to the quality and tone of his band. With his left hand, you observe, he plays a piano what time he manipulates a harmonium with his right. And all the while he seems to be able to exchange confidences with the first violin, who, you cannot fail to perceive, is a wag. You do not take this in all at once, for your eyes at first are fastened on the stage, where two comely females are engaged in a vigorous encounter of words, which you surmise may lead eventually to something very like blows — as it does. You pick up the subject or the object, which you please, of the duel of tongues between the two ladies, one of whom is dressed like a superior shop-assistant, while the other might be a factory-girl. They both lay claim to the affections of a certain “Charlie,” and in the wordy warfare that ensues they do not spare each other. “Do you know,” asks the superior shop-assistant in a shrill voice, “that I have blue blood in my veins?” “What I do know,” retorts the other, with great deliberation, “is that you’ll soon have red blood on your nose!” Whereat the house, hugely tickled, roars delightedly. “Do you know,” cries the first, “that my father occupies an important, a very important, position in the town?” “As a mud-pusher, I suppose!” And again the audience screams its appreciation; indeed, the audience does this on the slightest provocation during this particular “turn.” Finally, the end you have foreseen comes. A little fisticuff battle concludes the action — without any damage to either of the scrappers, who suddenly stop, shake hands, and stand bowing and smiling before the footlights. The curtain descends, and the band plays a loud and lively air, the cornet, in particular, adding several horse-power to its volume and momentum, so to speak.

Next appears upon the stage a young lady, rouged, powdered, decolletée, short-frocked; she is a mimic, and, as you soon perceive, a clever one. She gives personations of some well-known popular music-hall favourites. Thus, she imitates Eugene Stratton in his “Lily of Laguna,” and Happy Fanny Fields in a American-German song. In the latter character she says to the audience, “Why don’t you applaud me more? Don’t you know that the more you applaud me the more money I make?” And don’t they applaud! The place fairly rocks with laughter and hoarse shouts. To this young lady succeeds the Artist Lightning Sketcher — he is also a ventriloquist. He provides himself with the figures ventriloquists usually introduce into their pieces by a very simple device. He draws them on a large sheet of paper with chalks of red, black, and green, while you look on. Next he makes you a picture of St. Peter’s at Rome on a big smoked plate — and all in a minute or two. Then he does something even more ambitious — it is his great lightning picture, called “The Home of the Sea Gull.” There is a large white sheet of paper on a board; he takes various chalks — vermilion, blue, green, black, orange — and hey! presto, there are blue sky, green water, black rocks, white gulls, and a black steamer (a Newcastle boat, evidently) belching forth black smoke, to say nothing of a black man in a black boat! And all in a moment. No wonder the audience shouts its approval. This spurs the lightning artist to a Still More Amazing Feat. Stepping forward with a profound bow, he announces that he will, in a couple of moments, without rubbing out a single mark on “The Home of the Sea Gull,” convert that masterpiece into another, and very different, picture, entitled ” A Summer Evening Walk in the Country.” And he does it! Wonderful man! Again flash the chalks of vermilion, blue, green black, orange. The blue sk ynow gorgeous with the splendours of a dying sunset; the green water becomes green earth; the black rocks are transformed into black trees; the black steamboat, and the black man, and the black boat, are replaced by black trees with black foliage; and the white gulls roost under cover of the black leaves also. Finally, a touch or two, and there is a pair of lovers in the foreground. “I calls that fine,” says a deep voice behind you; “‘e’s clever, ‘e is!” Every one thinks the same, for the lightning artist is awarded thunderous applause, as is only right in the circumstances. And yet there may be some who say that Art is not appreciated in this country!

Now there trips upon the platform another young lady. First she sings a song about a young angel from the Angel (at Isling-t-u-n) who had four little angels at ‘ome, although the gay young spark who was courting her appeared to be unaware of this extremely interesting fact.
Somehow, the fact does not interest the audience, and the song is received with the sort of silence that is audible half a mile awav. “Ain’t no good,” says the deep voice in the rear: “she’ll ‘ave to go!” Poor girl! But her second turn is a dance, and this is received with considerable favour, so perhaps she will be kept on after all. To fail at even an East End hall must be a terrible business for an artiste; it means, if it means anything, the streets, starvation, death. While your mind may, perhaps, run on in this melancholy fashion a lion comique puts in an appearance, and your thoughts are whirled away. The lion comique is nothing if not immensely patriotic. In an enormous voice he shouts that King Edward is “one of the best” of kings; is a second verse he yells that Lord Charles Beresford is “one of the best” in the navy; in a third that General Buller is “one of the best” in the army — all of which statements are uproariously welcomed. This patriotic ditty is followed by a sentimental song, “When the Children are All in Bed,” and it is keenly appreciated. The audience, led by the first violin, who plays and, at the same time, sings the air with all the strength of his lungs, takes up the chorus with might and main. For your East Ender loves a sentimental song nearly as much as he loves his beer.

And now there comes the chief turn on the programme — it is a Sketch, by the Lynn family — Brother Lynn, so to speak, and two Sisters Lynn, though the family resemblance between them all is remarkably faint. The two ladies prove to be the same who appeared in the Abusive Duet of which “Charlie” was the subject a little while back. Mr., or Brother, Lynn, is new to you. The superior shop-assistant is now “Mrs. Guzzle,” and the factory-girl is her servant, “Sloppy.” Brother Lynn is “Mr. Guzzle,” Mr. Peter Guzzle. These are the dramatis personae. When the curtain goes up Mrs. Guzzle is bewailing to Sloppy the sad fact that her Peter no longer comes home early o’ nights, and that when he does come he is invariably the worse, much the worse, for “booze.” They take counsel together as to what is to be done to win Guzzle from his evil ways, and they hit on a great idea. This is nothing less than to lie in wait for Peter this very evening as ever was, get him to bed, and then pretend when he wakes up that he is dead — as dead as a red herring, or anything else that is most emphatically dead. Peter arrives upon the scene very drunk — he explains that he has been presiding at a teetotal meeting, and that it has gone slightly to his head. He is got off to bed, but in a surprisingly short time he reappears attired in his nightshirt, which is a commodious garment, whereunto is attached an enormous frill. He announces that he is come in search of the “water-bottle,” a statement which the audience receives with a yell of derision. And now enter Sloppy, who with tears (perhaps they keep her from seeing her master) laments the death of “poo’ mahster,” but is inclined to rejoice that her missus is rid of such a scamp. “It won’t be long before she marries agin. There was that ‘andsome feller that admired her sech a lot – o’ course, they’ll make a match of it!” And so on. Guzzle listens in amazement, exclaiming that he is not dead, but Sloppy makes as if Guzzle did not exist. So much so that Mr. Guzzle begins to think there must be some truth in what she says — he is dead, and he howls out the question, “Where am I — in Heaven, or in the Other Place?” (Great laughter.)

The action is advanced another stage by the arrival of the undertaker to measure Guzzle for his coffin. The undertaker, you see without any wonder whatever, is no other than Mrs. Guzzle. Assisted by Sloppy, they lay out Mr. Guzzle on a sofa — Guzzle keeps on protesting he is
not dead, hut that makes no difference — and measure him. “He’s the sort o’ size,” says the pretty undertaker, otherwise the superior shop-assistant, otherwise Mrs. Guzzle, with husiness-like grasp of the situation and of Peter, “that we keep in stock. I’ll send the coffin round at once. He’ll look pretty well laid out.” (Peter groans.) But, hold, something has been forgotten. Peter died suddenly, it seems, and the circumstances are a little suspicious. It is necessary, therefore, that there shall be an inquest by the coroner — Peter will have to be “opened up.” (Loud and long-contiimed shrieks from Peter: “Cut up! Opened up! I won’t be cut up! I won’t be opened up! I’m not dead! O! what a bad dream! What an awful nightmare!”) Then Sloppy and the undertaker talk about the “dear departed.” Sloppy tells him that her master was a good ‘usband to missus until he took to bettin’ and drinkin’. Well, Guzzle was dead now (“I must be dead!” cries Guzzle, with sudden conviction), and missus would soon console herself — ” A ‘andsome woman like ‘er won’t have to wear the willer long.” (Peter groans dismally.) Exit undertaker, promising to send the coffin at once.

Meanwhile there is a noise outside, and Sloppy remarks that must be the coroner come to hold the inquest, and he must be sharpening up his instruments to “open up mahster.” (Peter shrieks, howls, kicks, tears his hair — the audience shouting with inextinguishable laughter the
while.) But the coroner never comes upon the stage; instead of him enter the Devil to take Peter off to the Other Place. (The Devil, you will notice, has on this occasion a trim female figure — in fact, that of Mrs. Guzzle.) The Devil is too much for Peter, and he (Peter) goes off into a fit. When he comes out of it, his wife and Sloppy are by his side. He tells them he’s had a frightful nightmare, but that, thank goodness, it was nothing else. “Do you know,” he says confidingly, “I dreamt I was dead, and that the undertaker came to measure me for my coffin, and that there was to be an inquest, and that I was to be opened up, and that the Devil — but it was all a bad dream! Well, my dear, it’s taught me a lesson. I’ll never bet or go to the Pig and Whistle again.” Brother Lynn and the two Sisters Lynn now join hands, while the crowd rocks and reels with tumultuous cheers, hand-clappings, and cat-calls. The Lynn Family, or Guzzle Family, as you like it, has scored a huge and gorgeous success!

To them succeed acrobats, who appear to think that jumping in and out of barrels, blindfolded, is quite a usual way of “getting around,” — but by this time you have seen enough. You abandon your fauteuil, get out of the smoke-laden, beer-stained atmosphere, and pass out into the street.

Comments: Robert Machray (1857-1946) and illustrator Tom Browne (1870-1910) wrote The Night Side of London, a observant and vividly illustrated account of all kinds of entertainment in Edwardian London, from which this chapter on the music hall comes. The illustrations are those that feature in the text. Machray was a journalist and a crime novelist; Browne was a prolific comic artist. The Parthenon Theatre of Varieties at Greenwich was renamed the Hippodrome and continues today as the Greenwich Theatre. The text has had one word removed which could cause offence.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Boswell for the Defence

Source: William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell for the Defence: 1769-1774 (London: William Heinemann, 1960), p. 238

Production: George Colman the elder, The Man of Business, and William O’Brien, Cross Purposes, Edinburgh, 16 July 1774

Text: Saturday 16 July [1774]: … At six I had a hackney-coach which carried Mrs. Montgomerie, Claud, my wife, and me to the play. There was just forty people in the boxes and pit. The play was The Man of Business, and the farce, Cross Purposes. It was wonderful to see with what spirit the players performed. In one view it was more agreeable tonight than being at a crowded play. One could attend fully to what passed on the stage, whereas in a great audience the attention is distracted and one has a great deal to do in behaving properly. The difference was the same as viewing a country when upon a calm horse at a slow walk or viewing it upon a fiery horse at a gallop, when you must attend to the reins and to your seat. But the laughable passages did not go off so well as in a crowd, for laughter is augmented by sympathetic power. Supped quietly at home.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Lord Auchinleck. The plays he saw were the comedy The Man of Business by George Colman the Elder and the afterpiece Cross-Purposes by the actor William O’Brien, both men being known to Boswell. I have not been able to identify the small theatre Boswell visited.

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

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. 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.