Memoirs

An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet, seeing the Ghost in his mother’s chamber, from Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s works (1709), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Colley Cibber (ed. Robert W. Lowe), An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, written by himself (London: John C. Nimmo, 1889 [orig. pub. 1740), vol. 1, pp. 99-105

Text: Betterton was an Actor, as Shakespear was an Author, both without Competitors! form’d for the mutual Assistance and Illustration of each others Genius! How Shakespear wrote, all Men who have a Taste for Nature may read and know — but with what higher Rapture would he still be read could they conceive how Betterton playd him! Then might they know the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write! Pity it is that the momentary Beauties flowing from an harmonious Elocution cannot, like those of Poetry, be their own Record! That the animated Graces of the Player can live no longer than the instant Breath and Motion that presents them, or at best can but faintly glimmer through the Memory or imperfect Attestation of a few surviving Spectators. Could how Betterton spoke be as easily known as what he spoke, then might you see the Muse of Shakespear in her Triumph, with all her Beauties in their best Array rising into real Life and charming her Beholders. But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of Description, how shall I shew you Betterton? Should I therefore tell you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Mackbeths, and Brutus‘s whom you may have seen since his Time, have fallen far short of him; this still would give you no Idea of his particular Excellence. Let us see then what a particular Comparison may do! whether that may yet draw him nearer to you?

You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first Appearance of his Father’s Spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining Vociferation requisite to express Rage and Fury, and the House has thunder’d with Applause; tho’ the mis-guided Actor was all the while (as Shakespear terms it) tearing a Passion into Rags – I am the more bold to offer you this particular Instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sate by him to see this Scene acted, made the same Observation, asking me, with some Surprize, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a Passion with the Ghost, which, tho’ it might have astonish’d, it had not provok’d him? for you may observe that in this beautiful Speech the Passion never rises beyond an almost breathless Astonishment, or an Impatience, limited by filial Reverence, to enquire into the suspected Wrongs that may have rais’d him from his peaceful Tomb! and a Desire to know what a Spirit so seemingly distrest might wish or enjoin a sorrowful Son to execute towards his future Quiet in the Grave? This was the Light into which Betterton threw this Scene; which he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly to a solemn, trembling Voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator as to himself! and in the descriptive Part of the natural Emotions which the ghastly Vision gave him, the boldness of his Expostulation was still govern’d by Decency, manly, but not braving; his Voice never rising into that seeming Outrage or wild Defiance of what he naturally rever’d. But alas! to preserve this medium, between mouthing and meaning too little, to keep the Attention more pleasingly awake by a temper’d Spirit than by meer Vehemence of Voice, is of all the Master-strokes of an Actor the most difficult to reach. In this none yet have equall’d Betterton. But I am unwilling to shew his Superiority only by recounting the Errors of those who now cannot answer to them, let their farther Failings therefore be forgotten! or rather, shall I in some measure excuse them? For I am not yet sure that they might not be as much owing to the false Judgment of the Spectator as the Actor. While the Million are so apt to be transported when the Drum of their Ear is so roundly rattled; while they take the Life of Elocution to lie in the Strength of the Lungs, it is no wonder the Actor, whose end is Applause, should be also tempted at this easy rate to excite it. Shall I go a little farther? and allow that this Extreme is more pardonable than its opposite Error? I mean that dangerous Affectation of the Monotone, or solemn Sameness of Pronounciation, which, to my Ear, is insupportable; for of all Faults that so frequently pass upon the Vulgar, that of Flatness will have the fewest Admirers. That this is an Error of ancient standing seems evident by what Hamlet says, in his Instructions to the Players, viz.

Be not too tame, neither, &c.

The Actor, doubtless, is as strongly ty’d down to the Rules of Horace as the Writer.

Si vis me flere, dolendum est
Primum ipsi tibi –

He that feels not himself the Passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping Audience: But this never was the Fault of Betterton; and it has often amaz’d me to see those who soon came after him throw out, in some Parts of a Character, a just and graceful Spirit which Betterton himself could not but have applauded. And yet in the equally shining Passages of the same Character have heavily dragg’d the Sentiment along like a dead Weight, with a long-ton’d Voice and absent Eye, as if they had fairly forgot what they were about: If you have never made this Observation, I am contented you should not know where to apply it.

A farther Excellence in Betterton was, that he could vary his Spirit to the different Characters he acted. Those wild impatient Starts, that fierce and flashing Fire, which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled Temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur): when the Betterton Brutus was provok’d in his Dispute with Cassius, his Spirit flew only to his Eye; his steady Look alone supply’d that Terror which he disdain’d an Intemperance in his Voice should rise to. Thus, with a settled Dignity of Contempt, like an unheeding Rock he repelled upon himself the Foam of Cassius. Perhaps the very Words of Shakespear will better let you into my Meaning:

Must I give way and room to your rash Choler?
Shall I be frighted when a Madman stares?

And a little after,

There is no Terror, Cassius, in your Looks! &c.

Not but in some part of this Scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his Temper is not under this Suppression, but opens into that Warmth which becomes a Man of Virtue; yet this is that Hasty Spark of Anger which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse.

But with whatever strength of Nature we see the Poet shew at once the Philosopher and the Heroe, yet the Image of the Actor’s Excellence will be still imperfect to you unless Language could put Colours in our Words to paint the Voice with.

Et, si vis similem pijigere, pinge sonum, is enjoyning an impossibility. The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his Portraits of great Persons seem to think; a Shakespear goes farther yet, and tells you what his Pictures thought; a Betterton steps beyond ’em both, and calls them from the Grave to breathe and be themselves again in Feature, Speech, and Motion. When the skilful Actor shews you all these Powers at once united, and gratifies at once your Eye, your Ear, your Understanding: To conceive the Pleasure rising from such Harmony, you must have been present at it! ’tis not to be told you!

Comments: Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an English actor-manager, playwright and poet laureate, whose engaging memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber is one of the best accounts we have of the theatre of his times. He began his acting career in Thomas Betterton‘s company in 1690, and rose in the profession to become manager of Drury Lane Theatre in 1710. Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710) was the leading English male actor of his time, who frequently played Shakespearean roles (generally in adaptations by writers of the period, including Betterton himself). Going by the rough chronology of Cibber’s memoir, he is referring to performances of Betterton in Hamlet in the 1690s.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Childhood Years

Postcard of the original Kabuki-za before it was rebuilt in 1911, via Wikipedia

Postcard of the original Kabuki-za before it was rebuilt in 1911, via Wikipedia

Source: Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Paul McCarthy), Childhood Years: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1990, orig. pub. 1957), pp. 147-148

Text: My guess is that, since our family finances had worsened greatly over the previous two years, going frequently to the Kabuki was a luxury we could no longer afford. According to the Yearbook the admission fees at the Kabukiza in those days were four yen fifty sen for a first-class box, three yen fifty for a good raised box in the orchestra, two yen fifty for an ordinary box in the orchestra, thirty-five sen per person for seats in a second-class box, and twenty sen per person for seats in the boxes on the third tier. And though Mother still seemed to go from time to time at my uncle’s invitation, I was now included in these parties less and less often; presumably, as I got older and bigger, it became a nuisance to try to find space for me in one of the good raised boxes that we always rented.

I can still remember how it felt to go with Mother by rickshaw from Minami Kayaba-cho toward Tsukiji, where the Kabukiza was, my heart beating fast with excitement as we raced along. Mother still referred to Shintomi-cho, which in the 1870s had housed a licensed quarter called the ‘New Shimabara,’ by that name; and so, crossing Sakurabashi bridge, we passed through ‘Shimabara,’ where the Shintomi Theater now stood, turned south along the bank of the river just in front of Tsukiji bridge, and, approaching Kameibashi bridge, caught our first glimpse of the large, cylindrical section crowning the roof of the Kabukiza. The theater had been built in 1889, so it was only four or five years old at the time. Nearby were some eleven teahouses affiliated with the theater, and these displayed bright flowered hangings on their second floors whenever the Kabukiza was open. We always left our rickshaw at an establishment called Kikuoka and then, with hardly a moment to rest in the guest room, we were hustled off by the maids. Slipping into the ‘lucky’ rush sandals supplied by the teahouse, we crossed a wooden-floored corridor and entered the theater. I remember how, after we had slipped off our sandals and stepped up into the theater corridor, the smoothly polished wooden floors felt strangely cool even through the thick soles of my tabi socks. Generally one felt a kind of chill in the air as one came in, with a breath of wind as cool as mint entering from the sleeves and from below one’s holiday kimono and prickling the underarms and nape of the neck. The slight sensation of chilliness was like the fresh, bright days of plum-blossom viewing in very early spring, making one shiver pleasantly.

‘The curtain’s going up!’ Mother would call, and I would hurry so as not to be late, running down the cool corridors.

I remember that often as we returned from the play it was raining. Perhaps this made our visit to the theater all the more memorable for me. The rickshaw in which we rode was fitted out with an oilcloth awning – the same material as those table covers used in Chinese restaurants. The odors of the oilcloth and the oil in my mother’s hair blended with the sweet fragrance of her kimono, filling the darkened cab. As I took in these smells and listened to the sound of the rain beating upon the awning, the images of the various actors we had seen on stage that day, the sounds of their voices, and the stage music came alive again for me there in that dark, enclosed world. On nights when I had watched scenes of a woman about the same age as my mother having to part with a beloved child, or stabbed by a furious husband, or driven to kill herself for the sake of fidelity or chastity, I asked myself what Mother would do if she found herself in such straits. Would she too abandon me or let me be killed for some principle? Thinking such thoughts, I passed along the streets that led toward home, swaying with the motion of the rickshaw.

Comments: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese novelist, author of Tade kuu mushi (Some Prefer Nettles), Yoshinokuzu (Arrowroot), Sasameyuki (The Makioka Sisters) and translations of The Tale of Genji. His childhood memoirs includes many references to theatrical entertainments in Tokyo, in particular visits to the Kabuki-za.

The Classic Slum

Source: Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971), pp. 147-150

Text: For the tired and umambitious there were other allurements. in our midst stood the usual ‘Blood Tub’, a low-grade theatre whose presence impinged on life social and cultural over a wider area. With actors, as with bookmakers, feeling remained ambivalent. Star performers,of course, were wholeheartedly admired save by the narrowly religious few, but ordinary theatricals who made up the weekly touring companies and who lodged, keeping themselves, in the larger houses close to the theatre, both impressed and shocked us. We watched the small-part actors with cheroots swaggering through the stage door in lush coats, astrakhan collared, and were amazed to discover through the matriarchs (who knew everything) that many of them owned but a single shirt apiece or one pair of socks. Though when ‘the ghost walked’ – pay night – and they popped in at the shop to buy generously of boiled ham, mustard pickles and pineapple chunks, they seemed well-heeled enough. Undoubtedly some kept up a bold face on most meagre incomes: a pair of sisters we knew, competent artists, as late as 1913 kept going in some style on the combined pay of 35s a week, out of which they had to find 8s 6d for a place to sleep. We saw actresses powdered and mincing, befurred and large-bosomed, cheeks bright with rouge (‘Red John’ the matrons called it), and we knew they had shared a pair of kippers for lunch. And all were immoral! Of that the respectable had no doubt. Yet they brought glamour, new ideas, tilillating catch-words, beauty, fantasy and a sense of style to our wretched reality, and we loved them for it. Occasionally a girl in her early teens, to the envy of all others, would leave us to ‘go on the stage’, i.e. join a touring dance troupe. On fleeting visits home afterwards, ‘dolled up to the eyes’, she would often pass down the street and ignore everyone. But neighbours had the satisfaction of thinking the worst.

Nowhere, of course, stood class division more marked than in a full house at the theatre, with shopkeepers and publicans in the orchestra stalls and dress circle, artisans and regular workers in the pit stalls, and the low class and no class on the ‘top shelf’ or balcony. There in the gods hung a permanent smell of smoke from ‘thick twist’, oranges and unwashed humanity. Gazing happily down on their betters the mob sat once a week and took culture in the shape of ‘East Lynne’, ‘The Silver King’, ‘Pride of the Prairie’, ‘A Girl’s Crossroads’, ‘The Female Swindler’, ‘A Sister’s Sacrifice’ and the first rag-time shows. The drama critic of our weekly press invariably ladled handsome praise over all plays and performers, though when, in ‘A Woman of Pleasure’, the heroine was abducted in the first act, and again (by balloon) in the second, chased through the third across Africa by natives and wild beasts, then, in the finale, snatched at the last moment from a burning ship – all this to the rattle of the South African war – he felt that the title was ‘somewhat misleading’.

In later years, after cinema had begun to outstrip live entertainment as an attraction, our theatre, like many others, tried ‘go as you please’ competitions on Friday evenings when local amateurs, good to outrageous, trod the boards. Two turns, at least, after debut could not have pursued their art much further, and the first, a nerve-fraying soprano, brought down what, for a moment, looked like a genuine protest from heaven. In the middle of her rendering of ‘The Holy City’ a bolt of flame burst from the upper dark and fell like a judgement to consume itself over vacant seats in the stalls. It turned out, however, that some careless smoker had ignited a lady’s cotton shawl and she had cast it forth blazing from the gods. The altercation which followed, aloft, added much to our evening.

The other artist, who called himself Houdini II, performed to slow piano music. He invited members of the audience to tie him with ropes, guaranteeing to be free ‘in a trice’. Two dockers then trussed him up so effectively that a few minutes later the stage manager and his aide had to carry him off like a parcel, bent double and almost asphyxiated, the audience having watched his frenetic struggles in dead silence. Later he appeared at the tail end of the prize-winners and received a five shilling consolation award for ‘effort’.

Many patrons of the cheapest seats in the theatre, lacking the benefits of literacy, revelled in song and the spoken word much as Shakespeare’s ‘groundlings’ had done three hundred years before. Often two friends would go together; one to learn by heart the air of the latest hit, the other to concentrate on getting hold of the lyric. Songs first heard in the theatre were taken up in pubs then rendered with dreary iteration by street buskers for the next several years. Professional ‘cadgers’ came among us in hard times, as many as ten a week. Some made no attempt to earn reward but begged openly from door to door; others strutted in a stylized walk down the middle of the ‘cart road’ quavering loud enough for householders to hear. Local members of the fraternity, though, never had the bad taste to perform in their own district. Some after singing broke into oratory, when reasons for their destitution came crying along the wind. This form of appeal, however, was generally frowned on. ‘I didn’t know where to put myself!’ said one woman in the shop, ‘when that — today started shoutin’ the odds!’ There was common agreement that a man should not ‘cry poverty’. One doubts if beggary ever profited much by it.

Comments: Robert Roberts (1905-1979) became an English teacher following his Salford childhood, where his parents ran a corner-shop. His book is a classic of working-class autobiography.

Just Like It Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 174, 176

Text: One Saturday after lunch my mother said to me, ‘Enjoy yourself, but don’t come home late like last week. Daddy and me are going to Uncle Barnet’. This was my special outing to the West End. I had recently been apprenticed to a process-engraving establishment that made blocks for printers, and was now earning 17s. 6d. a week. This enabled me to indulge in the luxury of an occasional visit to the fleshpots of the metropolis where, for the expenditure of two shillings, I could see a show and indulge in coffee and chocolate eclairs at one of Lyons Corner Houses.

My friend Norman, who lived round the corner, would join me after tea and we would go into a lengthy argument as to which theatre we should patronise that night. This was usually decided by watching the buses go by on the main road. Shows were advertised on their sides. Having solved the problem to our mutual satisfaction, we would take a threepenny ride from the quarter to Piccadilly Circus and go to the gallery entrance of our particular theatre. With luck, we would be up front of the queue and settle down to a steady wait of an hour or so.

The time was passed pleasantly listening to the buskers who entertained the crowd. Songs, recitations (including Shakespeare), acrobatics, escapologists, barrel organs, and the inevitable blind beggar led by a pathetic helper, passed among us soliciting alms. With a jerk and a metallic clank the gallery door would be opened by a uniformed commissionaire, and we would pelt up the dozens of stone steps to the box-office like an avalanche in reverse. Here we paid our shillings and obtained tickets for the show. This was followed by yet another mad scramble up the remaining flights of stairs until, puffed and panting, we found ourselves at the back of the gallery barrier. Followed yet another sortie, but this time in a downward direction, in order to get a seat as near to the front as possible. We looked like a crack infantry regiment going into battle. Usually we managed to get into the centre of the first or second rows, being young, athletic and having a good head for heights. Here, on a hard unsympathetic seat, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible, knowing full well that as the gallery filled up, we would have to shift or close up in order to make room for other people. Unless you were fortunate enough to get into the very front row, leg room was at a premium. The seats were merely cloth-padded shelves with no arm-rests in between. The man in front of you sat on your feet; you in turn, sat on the feet of the people behind. This led to a lot of harsh words and occasional kicks up the rear.

After a twenty-minute wait, the orchestra would creep into position from under the apron and tune up. We could never afford a programme so the violinist might have been Yehudi Menhuin for all we knew. Two or three popular classics were normal pre-curtain fare, usually drowned in chatter and the rustle of sweet bags and chocolate paper. Finally, to thin applause, the leader would take a bow, the house lights dim, and in the sudden and expectant silence, the curtain would slowly rise.

I saw Fred Astaire dance at the old Empire and watched young Basil Rathbone act in light comedy. Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, John Gielgud, Matheson Lang, Esme Percy, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Gladys Cooper, and a host of other luminaries filled the stages of my theatreland. Occasionally an instinctive need for culture took us to the Old Vic or Sadlers Wells (a new place this), where ‘early doors’ were Sixpence in the gallery. Charles Laughton, the Livesey brothers, Athene Seyler, and other actors of their calibre performed the works of the masters.

After the final curtain and the playing of the National Anthem, we would push our way out into the street, where the pavements were overflowing with the crowds leaving adjacent theatres. Private cars for the ‘dressed’ clientele and taxis for the suburbanites who panicked over the last trains to Wimbledon were waiting at the kerbside. Still excited by the show and trying to recall details of some of the highlights or a moving dramatic moment, Norman and I would push our way through the crowd like a couple of salmon swimming upstream, until we reached the Corner House facing Charing Cross Station. Here we rounded off the evening with a coffee and a plateful of creamy chocolate eclairs. Thus fortified, we would walk our way home to the Mittel East, our finances too meagre for the extra threepence fare, leaving the magic of the theatre and the bright lights of the West End behind us at the bottom of Ludgate Hill.

Comments: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney.

Just Like It Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), p. 173

Text: Appreciation of dramatic art was usually confined to the older natives who paid sporadic visits to the Pavilion in Whitechapel Road. Here, the Yiddish theatre flourished in all its sentimental glory, offering the romance-deprived audiences improbable slices of life where virtue always triumphed over vice. At predictable intervals during each performance the actors broke into ballads that wrung the heart and brought tears to the eyes of the audience, already smarting from the pall of tobacco smoke that partially obscured the stage. Upstairs, in the overcrowded gallery, and looking amazingly like an animated Hogarth cartoon, where the mums and dads who watched the action and at the same time consumed gargantuan snacks of schmaltz herring, fish and chips, pieces of cold chicken, oranges, pineapple chunks and monkey nuts, all openly carried into the theatre in shopping baskets. The unconsumed portions of their repast were tossed over the rails onto the heads of the ‘Capitalists’ in the pit below. The remote verbal exchanges that followed the bombardment often provided better entertainment than the advertised play. It was here that the great Joseph Kessler hammed his way through a thousand roles, ably supporting his assorted aged leading ladies through the vicissitudes of Jewish life in the ghetto to the rapturous applause of his many fans.

Comments: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. Joseph Kessler (1881-1933) was a Hungarian-born star of the Yiddish theatre in London, who appeared at the Paragon and Pavilion theatres in London’s East End throughout the 1910s and 20s.

Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Source: William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself; comprising a complete journal of his negotiations to procure the aid of the French for the liberation of Ireland, with selections from his diary whilst agent to the Irish Catholics (London: H. Colburn, 1827), vol. 1, pp. 290-291

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Paris, 21 March 1796

Text: [21 March 1796] Went to see Othello; not translated, but only taken from the English. Poor Shakspeare! I felt for him. The French tragedy is a pitiful performance, filled with false sentiment; the Moor whines most abominably, and Iago is a person of a very pretty morality: the author apologizes for softening the villany of the latter character, as well as for saving the life of Desdemona and substituting a happy termination in place of the sublime and terrible conclusion of the English tragedy, by saying that the humanity of the French nation, and their morality, would be shocked by such exhibitions! “Marry come up, indeed! People’s ears are sometimes the nicest part about them.” I admire a nation that will guillotine sixty people a day for months, (men, women, and children,) and cannot bear the catastrophe of a dramatic exhibition! Yet certainly the author knows best, and I have had occasion repeatedly to observe, that the French are more struck with any little incident of tenderness on the stage, a thousand times, than the English, — which is strange. In short, the French are a humane people when they are not mad, and I like them with all their faults, and the guillotine at the head of them, better, a thousand times, than the English. And I like the Irish better than either; and as no one can doubt my impartiality, I expect my opinion will be received with proper respect and deference by all whom it may concern. I have nothing to add.

Comments: Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was an Irish republican who led the Irish rebellion of 1798. He went to Paris in February 1796 to persuade the revolutionary government to assist in an invasion of Ireland. The production of Othello that he saw was probably an 1792 adaptation by Jean-François Ducis, which radically altered the plot (hence Desdemona survives and Iago is pardoned by Othello). Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. The plays were nevertheless a significant step in the belated appreciation of Shakespeare in France.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust