Letters

A Victorian Playgoer

The new Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1897, via Wikipedia

Source: Kate Terry Gielgud (ed. Muriel St Claire Byrne), A Victorian Playgoer (London: Heinemann, 1980), pp. 51-52

Production: Gilbert Parker, The Seats of the Mighty, Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 28 April 1897

Text: London has a new theatre, and a very fine one, and Mr. Tree and all those who have worked in its production deserve the heartiest congratulations. No pains have been spared to ensure good views of the stage throughout, and to make the front of the house comfortable. The theatre is very wide and somewhat shallow in proportion, with the circles pitched very high. and the effect is extremely good.

Mrs. Tree in the gorgeous dress of a lady of Louis XV’s Court stepped before the curtains and opened proceedings by delivering – very nervously – an ode especially composed by the Poet Laureate. It was very elaborate and patriotic but it really had not much to do with the theatre, and was not a brilliant piece of versification. Then came Miss Clara Butt and a choir to give a staccato rendering of the National Anthem, which took a very long time, and then, these forms and ceremonies being at an end we could settle down to enjoy and criticise the picture that Mr. Tree had thought fit to place first in this fine frame.

Since every one in the theatre-going world will inevitably go and see the new theatre, it cannot be wondered at that Mr. Tree should at first ‘work off’ a play that has not any very great individual attraction, keeping for later pieces of tho more importance. To be candid, Mr. Parker’s play is a bit tedious. The long arm of stage coincidence stretches so abnormally far, the play bears such evident signs of compression, events are piled together – with first rate melodramatic situations – but they are bewilderingly compressed without being concise, there are rough edges and threads picked up from nowhere in particular. It is a novelist’s play, the points are almost too dramatic for the stage except as lending themselves to triumphs of stage management, most impressive and praiseworthy on a previously untried field (excuse enough for the long waits, which, by the way, mattered nothing last night, as everyone wanted to look about the house and the audience.)

The plot is all very involved and hard to disentangle, and it seems a pity to waste so many dramatic moments in telling so invertebrate a story, for there is much that is good. Mr. Lewis Waller has an utterly bad part, a hero with never a chance being otherwise than passively heroic; he was most dignified and sympathetic and it is always a treat to hear him speak.

Making all allowance for the nervousness, the excitement of such a first night, I still think Mr. Tree has made too elaborate a study of Doltaire. He poses too perpetually, works his effects until they lost all spontaneity and, most important, he fails altogether to my mind, in presenting the strange fascination of the man. We cannot understand the secret of his power over then and women alike. His was the most artificial part in a palpably built-up play and I thought he accentuated rather than slurred over the artificiality. Mrs. Tree looked very well and acquitted herself well too, in no easy task. Her part begins with great promise; she has one good scene of cajolery and subsequent fury when Doltaire repels her advances, and then she drops out of the play – one of the ragged ends.

Miss Kate Rorke showed infinite tact and earnestness and made up in many ways for a a certain youthfulness that she lacks now. Her figure seemed the more matronly in juxtaposition with Mrs. Tree’s slight and graceful one, but the contrasts of art and simplicity, diplomacy and love. were at the same time heightened thereby.

It was a memorable evening altogether and one I should have been very sorry to miss; and if as an actor Mr. Tree hardly came up to his usual standard, as manager he excelled himself.

Comments: Kate Terry Gielgud (1868–1958) was the daughter of actress Kate Terry, niece of Ellen Terry, and the mother of the actor John Gielgud. Between 1892 and 1903 she wrote accounts of her visits to the London theatre as letters to an invalid friend who was unable to visit the theatre. The Her Majesty’s Theatre was built on the site of three earlier theatres. It was owned and managed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who also made the theatre his home. The opening play was an adaptation by Gilbert Parker of his popular novel The Seats of the Mighty, which Tree had previously presented in America in late 1896. Its subject is the British capture of Quebec under James Wolfe. The poet laureate was Alfred Austin.

A Letter to Martin Harvey

Source: Letter from Maurice B. Adams to John Martin-Harvey, 4 January 1920, Lucie Dutton collection

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden, London, 2 January 1920

Text: Jan 4, 1920

Martin Harvey Esq.

My dear sir,

I do not want to trouble you with a long note. It would be far from a short one if I ventured to express all that I felt about the excellence & artistic rendering of your treatment of “Hamlet”. I do wish to thank you for the real treat you gave us on Friday and to say how entirely the setting of the scenes & grouping of personages presented most telling pictures. The draperies in lieu of elaborate architecture & other scenery helped us to realize that the play itself & the acting of the players after all must be the chief importance. The restraint of the whole idea struck me most impressively and in this everyone seemed in accord. Nothing seemed overdone & no detail seemed over looked while the costumes in subdued colourings with here & there a dash of primaries in some subordinate gave the joy of contrast which I for one did not fail to notice. I was so glad you did not allow Hamlet to be really mad. Of course I saw Hamlet at the Lyceum & at the Haymarket. Irving was a master in his get up & boundless expenses on detail, but always it was Irving & of Tree with all his reputation & cleverness it must be confessed that he left me unconvinced, much as I enjoyed their efforts & need not indulge in any comparisons. I am happy to have seen your work once more & I do hope this season will repay you for all your loving care. It is evident throughout & needs no bush, least of all from a mere outsider in theatrical affairs. As an art craftsman myself at any rate I speak with a sense of recognition which pray accept in the spirit of good fellowship.

Faithfully

Maurice B. Adams, F.R.I.B.A.

Comments: Maurice Bingham Adams (1849-1933), the author of this fan letter, was an architect living in Chiswick. He had been Architect to Brighton Borough Council, and was a prolific designer of public libraries. John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) was appearing as Hamlet at the Covent Garden Royal Opera House. He was a British stage actor, who began his career with Henry Irving‘s Lyceum Theatre company, before establishing a reputation as a leading performer, particular in The Only Way (an adaptation of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities). My thanks to Lucie Dutton for permission to reproduce this letter from her personal collection.

Links: John Martin-Harvey and Fan Letters to Hamlet (Lucie Dutton’s blog)

Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

T.P. Cooke as the Creature, from a painting by Thomas Wageman, at New York Public Library Digital Collections

T.P. Cooke as the Creature, from a painting by Thomas Wageman, at New York Public Library Digital Collections

Source: Mary Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 9 September 1823, in Betty T. Bennett (ed.), Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), letter 1,378

Production: Richard Brinsley Peake, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, English Opera House, London, 28 July 1823

Text: But lo and behold! I found myself famous. F[rankenstein] had prodigious success as a drama & was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English opera house. The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list of dramatis personæ came, ——— [i.e., the Creature] by Mr. T. Cooke: this nameless mode of naming the un[n]ameable is rather good.

On Friday Aug. 29th Jane[,] My father[,] William & I went to the theatre to see it. Wallack looked very well as F[rankenstein]—he is at the beginning full of hope & expectation—at the end of the 1st Act. the stage represents a room with a staircase leading to F[rankenstein]’s workshop—he goes to it and you see his light at a small window, through which a frightened servant peeps, who runs off in terror when F[rankenstein] exclaims “It lives!”—Presently F[rankenstein] himself rushes in horror & trepidation from the room and while still expressing his agony & terror ——— throws down the door of the laboratory, leaps the staircase & presents his unearthly & monstrous person on the stage. The story is not well managed—but Cooke played ———’s part extremely well—his seeking as it were for support—his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard—all indeed he does was well imagined & executed. I was much amused, & it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience. It was a third piece, a scanty pit filled at half-price, and all stayed till it was over. They continue to play it even now.

Comments: Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was an English novelist, essayist and travel writer, and wife of the poet Percy Shelley. Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, by Richard Brinsley Peake, was the first dramatisation of her novel Frankenstein. It opened at the English Opera House (later the Lyceum Theatre) in London on 28 July 1823, and Shelley saw it with her father William Godwin on 29 August 1823. Victor Frankenstein was played by James William Wallack, and the Creature by Thomas Potter Cooke. Because only the patent theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden could perform ‘legitimate’ drama at this time, other theatres were obliged to put on spectacles, musical entertainments, pantomimes and the like, which affected the nature of the production of Presumption, which featured songs, dumbshow sequences and an avalanche for the finale.

Links: Copy at Romantic Circles (site on Romantic-period literature and culture)

Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis

Source: Charles Belmont Davis (ed.), Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis (New York: Scribner’s, 1917), pp. 223-226

Production: Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund event, Drury Lane, London, 17 March 1898

Text: London, March 20, 1898

Dear Mother,

The Nellie Farren benefit was the finest thing I have seen this year past. It was more remarkable than the Coronation, or the Jubilee. It began at twelve o’clock on Thursday, but at ten o’clock Wednesday night, the crowd began to gather around Drury Lane, and spent the night on the sidewalk playing cards and reading and sleeping. Ten hours later they were admitted, or a few of them were, as many as the galleries would hold. Arthur Collins, the manager of the Drury Lane and the man who organized the benefit, could not get a stall for his mother the day before the benefit. They were then not to be had, the last having sold for twelve guineas. I got two the morning of the benefit for three pounds each, and now people believe that I did get into the Coronation! The people who had stalls got there at ten o’clock, and the streets were blocked for “blocks” up to Covent Garden with hansoms and royal carriages and holders of tickets at fifty dollars apiece. It lasted six hours and brought in thirty thousand dollars. Kate Vaughan came back and danced after an absence from the stage of twelve years. Irving recited The Dream of Eugene Aram, Terry played Ophelia, Chevalier sang Mrs. Hawkins, Dan Leno gave Hamlet, Marie Tempest sang The Jewel of Asia and Hayden Coffin sang Tommy Atkins, the audience of three thousand people joining in the chorus, and for an encore singing “Oh, Nellie, Nellie Farren, may your love be ever faithful, may your pals be ever true, so God bless you Nellie Farren, here’s the best of luck to you.” In Trial by Jury, Gilbert played an associate judge; the barristers were all playwrights, the jury the principal comedians, the chorus girls were real chorus girls from the Gaiety mixed in with leading ladies like Miss Jeffries and Miss Hanbury, who could not keep in step. But the best part of it was the pantomime. Ellaline came up a trap with a diamond dress and her hair down her back and electric lights all over her, and said, “I am the Fairy Queen,” and waved her wand, at which the “First Boy” in the pantomime said, “Go long, now, do, we know your tricks, you’re Ellaline Terriss”; and the clown said, “You’re wrong, she’s not, she’s Mrs. Seymour Hicks.” Then Letty Lind came on as Columbine in black tulle, and Arthur Roberts as the policeman, and Eddy Payne as the clown and Storey as Pantaloon.

The rest of it brought on everybody. Sam Sothern played a “swell” and stole a fish. Louis Freear, a housemaid, and all the leading men appeared as policemen. No one had more than a line to speak which just gave the audience time to recognize him or her. The composers and orchestra leaders came on as a German band, each playing an instrument, and they got half through the Washington Post before the policemen beat them off. Then Marie Lloyd and all the Music Hall stars appeared as street girls and danced to the music of a hand-organ. Hayden Coffin, Plunkett
Greene and Ben Davies sang as street musicians and the clown beat them with stuffed bricks. After that there was a revue of all the burlesques and comic operas, then the curtain was raised from the middle of the stage, and Nellie Farren was discovered seated at a table on a high stage with all the “legitimates” in frock-coats and walking dresses rising on benches around her.

The set was a beautiful wood scene well lighted. Wyndham stood on one side of her, and he said the yell that went up when the curtain rose was worse than the rebel yell he had heard in battles. In front of her, below the stage, were all the people who had taken part in the revue, forming a most interesting picture. There was no one in the group who had not been known for a year by posters or photographs: Letty Lind as the Geisha, Arthur Roberts as Dandy Dan. The French Girl and all the officers from The Geisha, the ballet girls from the pantomime, the bare-back-riders from The Circus Girl; the Empire costumes and the monks from La Poupee, and all the Chinese and Japanese costumes from The Geisha. Everybody on the stage cried and all the old rounders in the boxes cried.

It was really a wonderfully dramatic spectacle to see the clown and officers and Geisha girls weeping down their grease paint. Nellie Farren’s great song was one about a street Arab with the words: “Let me hold your nag, sir, carry your little bag, sir, anything you please to give – thank’ee, sir!” She used to close her hand, then open it and look at the palm, then touch her cap with a very wonderful smile, and laugh when she said, “Thank’ee, sir!” This song was reproduced for weeks before the benefit, and played all over London, and when the curtain rose on her, the orchestra struck into it and the people shouted as though it was the national anthem. Wyndham made a very good address and so did Terry, then Wyndham said he would try to get her to speak. She has lost the use of her hands and legs and can only walk with crutches, so he put his arm around her and her son lifted her from the other side and then brought her to her feet, both crying like children. You could hear the people sobbing, it was so still. She said, “Ladies and Gentleman,” looking at the stalls and boxes, then she turned her head to the people on the stage below her and said, “Brothers and Sisters,” then she stood looking for a long time at the gallery gods who had been waiting there twenty hours. You could hear a long “Ah” from the gallery when she looked up there, and then a “hush” from all over it and there was absolute silence. Then she smiled and raised her finger to her bonnet and said, “Thank’ee, sir,” and sank back in her chair. It was the most dramatic thing I ever saw on a stage. The orchestra struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and they gave three cheers on the stage and in the house. The papers got out special editions, and said it was the greatest theatrical event there had ever been in London.

Comments: Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was a celebrated American journalist and novelist, known for his war reporting and sharp eye for a sensational subject. Ellen ‘Nellie’ Farren (1848-1904) was a British actor and singer, renowned for her principal boy performances in Gaiety Theatre productions, which attracted a huge, chiefly male, following. She was forced to retire through ill health in 1892. On 17 March 1898 a performance in aid of the Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund at Drury Lane drew an unprecedented cast of late Victorian stage greats, and raised an estimated £7,000. The show included a production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s one act comic opera Trial by Jury, with Gilbert himself playing the Associate. Other accounts of the event state that Dan Leno appeared in a scene from the Drury Lane pantomime with Herbert Campbell, and not a scene from Hamlet.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton

Source: Sir Henry Wotton to Sir Edmund Bacon, letter dated 2 July 1613, reproduced in Logan Pearsall Smith (ed.), The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), vol. II, pp. 32-33

Production: John Fletcher/William Shakespare, Henry VIII, Globe theatre, London, 29 June 1613

Text: Sir,

Whereas I wrote unto you, that I would be at Cambridge as on Saturday next, I am now cast off again till the King’s return to London, which will be about the middle of the week following. The delay grows from a desire of seeing Albertus his business settled before we come unto you, where we mean to forget all the world besides. Of this we shall bring you the account.

Now, to let matters of state sleep, I will entertain you at the present with what hath happened this week at the Bank’s side. The King’s players had a new play, called All is true, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage; the Knights of the Order with their Georges and garters, the Guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale. The rest when we meet; till when, I protest every minute is the siege of Troy. God’s dear blessings till then and ever be with you.

Your poor uncle and faithful servant,

Henry Wotton

Comments: Henry Wotton (1568-1639) was an English poet and diplomat. Edmund Bacon was his nephew. The Globe theatre was built in 1599 for Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, and burned down during a performance of Henry VIII on 29 June 1613. Wotton gives the title of the play as All is True, which was adopted as its title by the Oxford edition of the plays in 1986. The Globe was rebuilt in 1614, closed down in 1642 and pulled down around 1644-45.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal

Source: Robert Southey, Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol: Printed by Bulgin and Rosser, for Joseph Cottle, and G.G. and J.Robinson, and Cadell and Davies, London, 1797), pp. 9-13

Text: Letter II. Tuesday Night.

I am just returned from the Spanish Comedy. The Theatre is painted with a muddy light blue, and a dirty yellow, without gilding, or any kind of ornament. The boxes are engaged by the season: and subscribers only, with their friends, admitted to them, paying a pesetta each. In the pit are the men, seated as in a great arm’d chair; the lower class stand behind these seats: above are the women; for the sexes are separated, and so strictly, that an officer was broke at Madrid, for intruding into the female places. The boxes, of course, hold family parties. The centre box, over the entrance of the pit, is appointed for the magistrates; covered in the front with red fluff, and ornamented with the royal arms. The motto is a curious one, “Silencio y no fumar.” Silence and no smoaking.” The Comedy, of course, was very dull to one who could not understand it. I was told that it contained some wit, and more obscenity; but the only comprehensible joke to me, was “Ah !” said in a loud voice by one man, and “Oh!” replied equally equally loud by another, to the great amusement of the audience. To this succeeded a Comic Opera; the characters were represented by the most ill-looking man and woman I ever saw. My Swedish friend’s island of hares and rabbits could not have a fitter king and queen. The man’s dress was a thread-bare brown coat lined with silk, that had once been white, and dirty corduroy waistcoat and breeches; his beard was black, and his neckcloth and shoes dirty: but his face! Jack-ketch might sell the reversion of his fee for him, and be in no danger of defrauding the purchaser. A soldier was the other character, in old black velveret breeches; with a pair of gaters reaching above the knee, that appeared to have been made out of some blacksmith’s old leathern apron. A farce followed, and the hemp-stretch man again made his appearance; having blacked one of his eyes to look blind. M. observed that he looked better with one eye than with two; and we agreed, that the loss of his head would be an addition to his beauty. The prompter stands in the middle of the stage, about half way above it; before a little tin screen, not unlike a man in a cheese-toaster. He read the whole play with the actors, in a tone of voice equally loud; and, when one of the performers added a little of his own wit, he was so provoked as to abuse him aloud, and shake the book at him. Another prompter made his appearance to the Opera, unshaved, and dirty beyond description: they both used as much action as the actors. The scene that falls between the acts would disgrace a puppet-show at an English fair; on one side is a hill, in size and shape like a sugar-loaf, with a temple on the summit, exactly like a watch-box; on the other Parnassus, with Pegasus striking the top in his flight, and so giving a source to the waters of Helicon: but, such is the proportion of the horse to the mountain, that you would imagine him to bet only taking a flying leap over a large ant-hill; and think he would destroy the whole oeconomy of the state, by kicking it to pieces. Between the hills lay a city; and in the air sits a duck-legged Minerva, surrounded by flabby Cupids. I could see the hair-dressing behind the scenes: a child was suffered to play on the stage, and amuse himself by sitting on the scene, and swinging backward and forward, so as to endanger setting it on fire. Five chandeliers were lighted by only twenty candles. To represent night, they turned up two rough planks, about eight inches broad, before the stage lamps and the musicians, whenever they retired, blew out their tallow candles. But the most singular thing, is their mode of drawing up the curtain. A man climbs up to the roof, catches hold of a rope, and then jumps down; the weight of his body raising the curtain, and that of the curtain breaking his fall. I did not see one actor with a clean pair of shoes. The women wore in their hair a tortoise-shell comb to part it; the back of which is concave, and so large as to resemble the front of a small bonnet. This would not have been inelegant, if their hair had been clean and without powder, or even appeared decent with it. I must now to supper. When a man must diet on what is disagreeable, it is some consolation to reflect that it is wholesome; and this is the case with the wine: but the bread here is half gravel, owing to the soft nature of their grind-stones. Instead of tea, a man ought to drink Adams’s solvent with his breakfast.

Comments: Robert Southey (1774-1843) was a British poet, historian and biographer, serving as Poet Laureate for the last thirty years of his life. He travelled to Portugal and Spain in 1795, staying with an uncle who was chaplain to the British community in Lisbon. Southey’s account of his stay was his first published prose work.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Journals and Letters of Reginald, Viscount Esher

Henry Ainley and Lily Brayton in As You Like It, postcard

Henry Ainley and Lily Brayton in As You Like It, postcard

Source: Maurice V. Brett (ed.), Journals and Letters of Reginald, Viscount Esher (London: I. Nicholson & Watson, 1934-38), vol. 2, p. 271

Production: William Shakespeare, As You Like It, His Majesty’s Theatre, London, 31 December 1907

Text: January 2nd, 1908. Two nights ago we took Chat to see As you like it, and he was moved, as everyone must be, to see it interpreted as it is just now (by Oscar Asche, Lily Brayton and Ainley). The fairy spirit of Shakespeare, and his reading of the child nature which is in all men till they die, come floating through every scene of the lovely play. Laughter and tears alternate, and sweep through the audience. It is not only the soul of the Renaissance, but the spirit of eternal joy, which dominates the Forest of Arden.

Comments: Reginald Baliol Brett, second Viscount Esher (1852–1930) was a British historian and an influential Liberal politician. Oscar Asche‘s production of As You Like It at the His Majesty’s Theatre in London was notable for the large number of potted plants and leaves employed to give the illusion of a real forest. Brett saw the play on 31 December 1907.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Letters of Ignatius Sancho

Source: Ignatius Sancho to John Meheux, 9 October 1779, letter no. 109, in Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt (eds.), The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), p. 193

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, September or October 1779

Text: But as I was saying – for I hate prolixity – as I was saying above Mr. Ireland (in imitation of the odd soul I have laboured to describe) – came in person twice) wishing to do me honor as well as pleasure – came in person twice, to insist accompanying he and she and two more, to see Mr. Henderson take possession of the throne of Richard – into the boxes – (I believe box is properer) – We went – the house as full, just as it could be, and no fuller – as hot as it was possible to bear – or rather hotter. – Now do you really and truly conceive what I mean? – Alas, there are some stupid souls, formed of such phlegmatic, adverse materials, that you might sooner strike conception into a flannel petticoat – or out of one – (now keep your temper, I beg, sweet Sir) than convince their simple craniums that six and seven make thirteen. It was a daring undertaking – and Henderson was really awed with the idea of the great man, whose very robes he was to wear – and whose throne he was to usurp. – But to give him his due – he acquitted himself well – tolerably well – He will play it much better next time – and the next better still. Rome was not built in six weeks – and, trust me, a Garrick will not be formed under seven years. – I supped with his Majesty and Mr. and Mrs. Ireland, where good-nature and good-sense mixed itself with the most cheerful welcome.

Comments: Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-1780) was a black British author and composer, whose posthumously-published letters gained a wide readership. John Henderson (1747-1785) was an actor whose rivalry with David Garrick is the source of Sancho’s satirical humour (Garrick had retired from acting in 1776). He first appeared in the title role of Richard III at Drury Lane on 7 October 1777. There was a production of the play at Drury Lane in September 1779, but it did not feature Henderson. I cannot explain the discrepancy over dates. John Meheux was an artist friend of Sancho’s.