Periodicals

Riot at Covent Garden Theatre

‘Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, 1763 print, Theatre and Performance Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1763, vol. XXXII, p. 97

Production: Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 February 1763

Text: A riot happened at Covent-Garden theatre occasioned by a demand being made for full prices at the opera of Artaxerxes. The mischief done was the greatest ever, known on any occasion of the like kind; all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so that if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000l. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.

Comments: The opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne premiered successfully at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762. When it was revived at the same theatre on 24 February 1763 a riot occurred in protest at the abolition of half-price admissions. It has been the custom to sell half-price tickets for latecomers who would see only the short afterpiece rather than the main attraction of the evening. This change in policy was fiercely opposed by some and led to several such riots, at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The protests caused the half-price concession to be re-introduced when the theatre re-opened on March 2nd. 2000l is £2,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

A Visit to Charles Dickens

Source: Hans Christian Andersen, ‘A Visit to Charles Dickens’, Temple Bar, vol. 31, 1871, pp. 38-40

Production: William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857

Text: Respecting the mise en scène — and I must say even to exaggeration — one may obtain an idea in London by the grand and fantastic splendour with which Shakespeare’s plays were placed on the stage by Charles Kean. Kean, the son of the celebrated actor, but not comparable to his father in genius, had the genuine merit to have applied real talent and profound historical studies in order to produce the plays of Shakespeare in such a style as was never before witnessed, and would never have been conceived by the poet himself. He also adhered to the original with a pious fidelity heretofore unknown. In former times, managers had no scruples about omitting the Fool in ‘King Lear,’ one of the most important figures in the chief tragic group. Dickens told me that Macready had been the first to restore this essential character. At the time of my visit people were thronging to see the first representation of the ‘Tempest,’ which had been placed on the stage after innumerable rehearsals, and at an immense outlay. The theatre was crowded. The theatre is not large, and it is quite wonderful what human will and genius have been enabled to accomplish. Painter and machinist had perfectly caught the spirit of the piece: the mise en scène seemed inspired by the fancy of Shakespeare himself. During the overture, the music of which expresses the storm with an accompaniment of roaring thunder, shrieks and cries were heard from within. The whole prelude was thus given before the raising of the curtain. When this took place heavy billows came rolling against the footlights. The whole stage was a tumultuous sea: a large vessel was tossed to and fro — it occupied the larger part of the scene; sailors and passengers ran confusedly about; cries of agony and anguish resounded; the masts fell, and soon the vessel itself disappeared in the foaming brine. Dickens told me, that the ship was made of inflated air-tight canvas, the air being let out of which the entire huge body collapses at once, and is hidden by the waves, which were half the height of the scene.

The first appearance of Ariel was poetically beautiful to a high degree: as Prospero summoned him a shooting star fell from heaven; it touched the grass, it shone in blue and green flames, and rose suddenly before us as Ariel’s beautiful and angel-like form; he stood there in white garments, with wings from his shoulders down to the ground; it was as if he and the starry meteor had floated through heaven at the same moment. Every appearance of Ariel was different, and all were beautiful: now he appeared clinging by his hand to the tendrils of a vine, now floating across the scene by some mechanism not easy to be discovered. No cord or rod was visible, yet something of this nature upbore him in his attitude of flight. In one act we saw a bleak winter landscape, changing gradually at the outbreak of sunbeams to an aspect of the utmost luxuriance; the trees became arrayed in leaves, flowers, and fruit; the springs gushed abundantly, and water-nymphs, light as a swan’s feathers upon the billows, danced down the foaming waterfalls. In another scene Olympus shone forth with all its classic beauty; the aerial background was filled with hovering genii. Juno came borne along in her chariot by peacocks, whose trains glistened with radiance. The signs of the zodiac moved in procession: the entire scene was a perfect kaleidoscope phantasmagoria. The splendour of a single act would have drawn crowded houses to witness even the poorest play, and it was lavished upon five acts of Shakespeare — it was too much! Yes! we even sailed with the Ares in the gliding boat, and saw heir thoughts embodied. The whole background moved by — landscape succeeded landscape — a complete moving panorama.

The final scene was undeniably the most effective. It represented an open sea, rippled by the wind. Prospero, who is quitting his island, stood in the stern of the vessel, which moved from the background towards the foot-lights. The sails swelled, and when the parting epilogue had been spoken the ship glided slowly behind the side-scenes, and Ariel appeared, floating over the surface of the water and wafting his parting farewell. All the light fell upon him, insomuch that he, isolated by the electric ray, shed a meteoric splendour over the scene; a beautiful rainbow beamed away from him over the watery mirror. The moon that had shone brightly faded in the sunny radiance, and the rainbow glory beaming from him in the moment of departure. The enchanted public forgave the long intervals between the acts, and the interminable duration of the piece; which lasted on the first representation from 7 to 12.30. Everything had been done that scenery and mise en scene could effect; and yet, after seeing all we felt overwhelmed, weary, and empty. Shakespeare himself was sacrificed to the lust of the eye. Bold poetry became petrified into prosaic illustration. The living word evaporated, and the nectarean food was forgotten in the golden dish in which it was served up.

None of the actors appeared to me remarkable as dramatic artists, except the representation of Caliban. Ariel, which was performed by a lady, was a lovely figure; in naming these I have mentioned the only two of any importance. Kean declaimed in the style of a preacher, and his organ was not fine. I should more enjoy a representation of Shakespeare’s in a wooden theatre than here, where the play was lost in the properties.

Comments: Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author, best known for his fairy tales. He visited Charles Dickens at the latter’s home in Gad’s Hill, Kent over June-July 1857, greatly outstaying his welcome, to the annoyance of Dickens’s family. He visited London with Dickens on a number of occasions, though it is not absolutely certain that Dickens himself was present at this production of The Tempest at the Princess’s Theatre, London, 1 July 1857. Charles Kean was the son of the actor Edmund Kean, but inherited few of his father’s gifts as an actor. He was actor-manager at the Princess’s Theatre in London 1851-1859. Kean stressed painstaking, supposed historical accuracy in sets and costumes for his Shakespeare productions, combined with elaborate scenic effects (requiring over 140 stagehands). With scene changes between the acts, the entire production of The Tempest lasted for nearly five hours, despite substantial cuts to the text. Kean played Prospero, Kate Terry was Ariel, and John Ryder played Caliban.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust