Pit

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 15-16

Production: Anon., The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, Haymarket Theatre, London, 2 July 1767

Text: Thurs. July 2. Dined at St Clement’s Eating house. ½ past 6 went to the Haymarket Theatre, but could not get into the Pit or first Gallery, so stood on the last row of the shilling Gallery, tho’ I could see little, to see how ‘The Taylors’, a new Tragedy for warm weather, would go off, being the first night of its performance. 3rd Act hissed – the Gods in the shilling Gallery called for the ‘Builders Prologue’ – hissed off the part of the old Maid twice and Davies, who came to make an excuse. The Gentlemen, many of whom were there, cried ‘No Prologue’, but to no purpose. At last Foote said if he knew their demands he would be ready to comply with them. The noise ceasing, after some time he was told the Builders Prologue was desired. He said he had done all in his power to get the Performers, having seen them. After some time he came and informed them that he had got the performers together and if the house would be pleased ‘to accept the prologue in our dresses as we are you shall have it’. This was followed by a great clapping, which shows the genius of our English Mobility, ever generous after victory.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an English actor, dramatist and theatre manager. The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, later also known as The Quadrupeds, was a burlesque of the manners of tragic dramas, set among the world of tailors, with Foote playing Francisco and Thomas Davis playing Bernardo (some sources give Foote as the author, but the evidence is unclear). The ‘Builder’s Prologue’ was another name for a popular piece by Foote, An Occasional Prologue in Prose-Laconic, written to celebrate the Haymarket Theatre gaining its royal patent to perform spoken drama in 1766. ‘Mobility’ was a vogueish term for ‘mob’.

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 44-45

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 29 September 1768

Text: Thursd. Sept. 29 … Hearing about 7 o’clock that Garrick did Rich. III, one of his very capital characters which he has not done these 7 or 8 years, resolved (if I could get in to see him) to bear the abhorred sight of that woman-like painted puppy, the King of Denmark. After one unsuccessful attempt got into the Pit with the greatest difficulty after the 3rd Act. Garrick is inimitably great in Richard & very different from the other Richards I have seen; his expression of the dying agony of that wretch is beyond description. Some actors speak with as strong & loud a voice in that scene as if they had received no wound & were not dying. One, Lloyd, who waits on Garrick sometimes, observed that he himself says he never acted better in his life, modestly observing that something must be allowed to the improvement of his judgment. During the Dance (for there was no Farce) I was within a yard of the Danish tyrant. O Heaven! what an instance of the corruption of mankind that a great nation should submit to the will – nay, the absolute will – of a puny vicious boy, unfit to govern himself & made for the distaff (like Sardanapalus) not for the rod of power!

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. David Garrick appeared in Richard III at Drury Lane on 29 September 1768. At the end of the play there was a comic dance. Christian VII, King of Denmark, attended the performance. Sardanapalus, a legendary Assyrian king, was a byword for decadent living.

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

Letters from England

Source: Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella [Robert Southey], Letters from England (translated from the Spanish) (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1808 [orig. pub. 1807]),  vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 33-35

Production: William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Drury Lane, London, probably 11 May 1802

Text: LETTER XVIII.

Drury-Lane Theatre.—The Winter’s Tale. —Kemble.—Mrs. Siddons.—Don Juan.

I here is nothing in a foreign land which a traveller is so little able to enjoy as the national theatre: though he may read the language with ease, and converse in it with little difficulty, still he cannot follow the progress of a story upon the stage, nor catch the jests, which set all around him in a roar, unless he has lived so long in the country that his ear has become perfectly naturalized. Fully aware of this, I desired J– to take me there on some evening when the drama would be most intelligible to the sense of sight; and we went accordingly yesternight to see The Winter’s Tale, a play of the famous Shakespeare’s, which has been lately revived for the purpose of displaying to advantage their two most celebrated performers, Kemble, and his sister Mrs. Siddons.

In the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the golden age of the English drama, London was not a tenth part of its present size, and it then contained seventeen theatres. At present there are but two. More would succeed, and indeed more are wanted, but these have obtained exclusive privileges. Old people say the acting was better in their younger days, because there were more schools for actors; and the theatres being smaller, the natural voice could be heard, and the natural expression of the features seen, and therefore rant and distortion were unnecessary. They, however, who remember no other generation of actors than the present, will not be persuaded that there has ever been one more perfect. Be this as it may, all are agreed that the drama itself has woefully degenerated, though it is the only species of literary labour which is well paid. They are agreed also as to the cause of this degeneracy, attributing it to the prodigious size of the theatres. The finer tones of passion cannot be discriminated, nor the finer movements of the countenance perceived from the front, hardly from the middle of the house. Authors therefore substitute what is here called broad farce for genuine comedy; their jests are made intelligible by grimace, or by that sort of mechanical wit which can be seen; comedy is made up of trick, and tragedy of processions, pageants, battles and explosions.

The two theatres are near each other, and tolerably well situated for the more fashionable and more opulent parts of the town; but buildings of such magnitude might have been made ornamental to the metropolis, and both require a more open space before them. Soldiers were stationed at the doors; and as we drew near we were importuned by women with oranges, and by boys to purchase a bill of the play. We went into the pit that I might have a better view of the house, which was that called Drury-lane, from the place where it stands, the larger and more beautiful of the two. The price here is three shillings and sixpence, about sixteen reales. The benches are not divided into single seats, and men and women here and in all parts of the house sit promiscuously.

I had heard much of this theatre, and was prepared for wonder still the size, the height, the beauty, the splendour, astonished me. Imagine a pit capable of holding a thousand persons, four tiers of boxes supported by pillars scarcely thicker than a man’s arm, and two galleries in front, the higher one at such a distance, that they who are in it must be content to see the show, without hoping to hear the dialogue; the colours blue and silver, and the whole illuminated with chandeliers of cut glass, not partially nor parsimoniously; every part as distinctly seen as if in the noon sunshine. After the first feeling of surprise and delight, I began to wish that a massier style of architecture had been adopted. The pillars, which are iron, are so slender as to give an idea of insecurity; their lightness is much admired, but it is disproportionate and out of place. There is a row of private boxes on each side of the pit, on a level with it; convenient they must doubtless be to those who occupy them, and profitable to the proprietors of the house; but they deform the theatre.

The people in the galleries were very noisy before the representation began, whistling and calling to the musicians and they amused themselves by throwing orange-peel into the pit and upon the stage: after the curtain drew up they were sufficiently silent. The pit was soon filled; the lower side-boxes did not begin to fill till towards the middle of the first act, because that part of the audience is too fashionable to come in time; the back part of the front boxes not till the half play; they were then filled with a swarm of prostitutes, and of men who came to meet them. In the course of the evening there were two or three quarrels there which disturbed the performance, and perhaps ended in duels the next morning. The English say, and I believe they say truly, that they are the most moral people in Europe; but were they to be judged by their theatres,—I speak not of the representation, but of the manners which are exhibited by this part of the audience,—it would be thought that no people had so little sense of common decorum, or paid so little respect to public decency.

No prompter was to be seen; the actors were perfect, and stood in no need of his awkward presence. The story of the drama was, with a little assistance, easily intelligible to me; not, indeed, by the dialogue; for of that I found myself quite unable to understand any two sentences together, scarcely a single one: and when I looked afterwards at the printed play, I perceived that the difficulty lay in the peculiarity of Shakespeare’s language, which is so antiquated, and still more so perplexed, that few even of the English themselves can thoroughly understand their favourite author. The tale, however, is this. Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is visiting his friend Leontes, king of Sicily; he is about to take his departure; Leontes presses him to stay awhile longer, but in vain—urges the request with warmth, and is still refused; then sets his queen to persuade him; and, perceiving that she succeeds, is seized with sudden jealousy, which, in the progress of the scene, becomes so violent, that he orders one of his courtiers to murder Polixenes. This courtier acquaints Polixenes with his danger, and flies with him. Leontes throws the queen into prison, where she is delivered of a daughter; he orders the child to be burnt; his attendants remonstrate against this barbarous sentence, and he then sends one of them to carry it out of his dominions, and expose it in some wild place. He has sent messengers to Delphos to consult the oracle; but, instead of waiting for their return to confirm his suspicions or disprove them, he brings the queen to trial. During the trial the messengers arrive, the answer of the god is opened, and found to be that the queen is innocent, the child legitimate, and that Leontes will be without an heir unless this which is lost shall be found. Even this fails to convince him; but immediately tidings come in that the prince, his only son, has died of anxiety for his mother: the queen at this faints, and is carried off; and her woman, comes in presently to say that she is dead also.

The courtier meantime lands with the child upon the coast of Bohemia, and there leaves it: a bear pursues him across the stage, to the great delight of the audience, and eats him out of their sight; which doubtless to their great disappointment. Sixteen years are now supposed to elapse between the third and fourth acts: the lost child, Perdita, has grown up a beautiful shepherdess, and the son of Polixenes has promised marriage to her. He proceeds to espouse her at a sheep-shearing feast; where a pedlar, who picks pockets, excites much merriment. Polixenes, and Camillo the old courtier who had preserved his life, are present in disguise and prevent the contract. Camillo, longing to return to his own country, persuades the prince to fly with his beloved to Sicily: he then goes with the king in pursuit of them. The old shepherd, who had brought up Perdita as his own child, goes in company with her; he produces the things which he had found with her; she is thus discovered to be the lost daughter of Leontes, and the oracle is accomplished. But the greatest wonder is yet to come. As Leontes still continues to bewail the loss of his wife, Paulina, the queen’s woman, promises to show him a statue of her, painted to the life, the work of Julio Romano, that painter having flourished in the days when Bohemia was a maritime country, and when the kings thereof were used to consult the oracle of Apollo, being idolaters. This statue proves to be the queen herself, who begins to move to slow music, and comes down to her husband. And then to conclude the play, as it was the husband of this woman who has been eaten by the bear, old Camillo is given her that she may be no loser.

Far be it from me to judge of Shakespeare by these absurdities, which are all that I can understand of the play. While, however, the English tolerate such, and are pleased not merely in spite of them, but with them, it would become their travellers not to speak with quite so much contempt of the Spanish theatre. That Shakespeare was a great dramatist, notwithstanding his Winter’s Tale, I believe; just as I know Cervantes to have been a great man, though he wrote El Dichoso Rufian. But you cannot imagine any thing more impressive than the finer parts of this representation; the workings of the king’s jealousy, the dignified grief and resentment of the queen, tempered with compassion for her husband’s phrensy; and the last scene in particular, which surpassed whatever I could have conceived of theatrical effect. The actress who personated the queen is acknowledged to be perfect in her art; she stood leaning upon a pedestal with one arm, the other hanging down—the best Grecian sculptor could not have adjusted her drapery with more grace, nor have improved the attitude; and when she began to move, though this was what the spectators were impatiently expecting, it gave every person such a start of delight, as the dramatist himself would have wished, though the whole merit must be ascribed to the actress.

The regular entertainments on the English stage consist of a play of three or five acts, and an afterpiece of two; interludes are added only on benefit nights. The afterpiece this evening was Don Juan, our old story of the reprobate cavalier and the statue, here represented wholly in pantomime. Nothing could be more insipid than all the former part of this dramas, nothing more dreadful, and indeed, unfit for scenic representation than the catastrophe; but either the furies of Aeschylus were more terrible than European devils, or our Christian ladies are less easily frightened than the women of Greece, for this is a favourite spectacle everywhere. I know not whether the invention be originally ours or the Italians’; be it whose it may, the story of the Statue is in a high style of fancy, truly fine and terrific. The sound of his marble footsteps upon the stage struck a dead silence through the house. It is to this machinery that the popularity of the piece is owing; and in spite of the dullness which precedes this incident, and the horror which follows it, I do not wonder that it is popular. Still it would be decorous in English writers to speak with a little less disrespect of the Spanish stage, and of the taste of a Spanish audience, while their own countrymen continue to represent and to delight in one of the most monstrous of all our dramas.

The representation began at seven; and the meals in London are so late, that even this is complained of as inconveniently early. We did not reach home till after midnight.

Comments: Robert Southey (1774-1843) was an English poet, historian and biographer, Poet Laureate for thirty years until his death. His Letters from England was written under the pseudonym of Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella and supposedly translated from Spanish (Southey was a scholar of Spanish literature and history). The fiction was that it documented a journey through England taken over 1803-03. There was a production of The Winter’s Tale, with Sarah Siddons, with a Don Juan afterpiece (author not known) at Drury Lane in London, on 11 May 1802, which is presumably the production described here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At the Princess’s

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘At the Princess’s’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 250-254, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, 6 December 1882, p. 4

Production: Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, The Silver King, Princess’s Theatre, London, December 1882

Text: An ‘Old Playgoer’ sends the following:-

I am a sexagenarian who used to go much to the Princess’s some five-and-thirty years ago, when Macready had an engagement there. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In spite of his faults and his mannerism, Macready brought to his work so much intellect, study, energy, and power, that one admired him when he was living, and remembers him now he is dead. During the engagement I speak of, Macready acted, I think, all his great Shaksperian [sic] parts. But he was ill-supported, the house was shabby and dingy, and by no means full; there was something melancholy about the whole thing. You had before you great pieces and a powerful actor; but the theater needs the glow of public and popular interest to brighten it, and in England the theater was at that time not in fashion. After an absence of many years I found myself at the Princess’s again. The piece was The Silver King. Perhaps I ought to have gone to see The Lights o’ London; but the lyric of Mr. Sims with which the streets were placarded in order to charm us to The Lights o’ London, had to my aged mind, an unpleasant touch of le faux – that danger, as the critic tells us, of the romantic artist:- ‘Comme chaque genre de composition a son écueil particulier, celui du genre romanesque, c’est le faux.’ At any rate I resisted the charm of Mr. Sims, and stayed away from The Lights o’ London. But The Silver King I have just now been to see, and I should like to record some of my impressions from it while they are fresh.

It was another world from the old Princess’s of my remembrance. The theater itself was renewed and transformed; instead of shabby and dingy, it had become decorated and brilliant. But the real revival was not in the paint and gilding, it was in the presence of the public. The public was there; not alone the old, peculiar public of the pit and gallery, but with a certain number of the rich and refined in the boxes and stalls, and with whole, solid classes of English society conspicuous by their absence. No, it was a representative public, furnisht [sic] from all classes, and showing that English society at large had now taken to the theater.

Equally new was the high general level of the acting. Instead of the company with a single powerful and intelligent performer, with two or three middling ones, and the rest moping and mowing in what was not to be called English but rather stagese, here was a whole company of actors, able to speak English, playing intelligently, supporting one another effectively. Mr. Wilson Barrett, as Wilfred Denver, is so excellent that his primacy cannot be doubted. Next after him, so far as the piece now acting is concerned, I should be inclined to put Mr. Charles Coote, as Henry Corkett. But it is the great merit of the piece that the whole is so effective, and that one is little disposed to make distinctions between the several actors, all of them do their work so well.

And the piece itself! It is not Shakspeare [sic], it is melodrama. I have seen it praised as tho it were not melodrama, not sensational drama at all, but drama of a new and superior kind, bordering upon poetic drama, and even passing into it. With this praise I cannot quite agree. The essential difference between melodrama and poetic drama is that one relies for its main effect upon an inner drama of thought and passion, the other upon an outer drama of, as the phrase is, sensational incidents. The Silver King relies for its main effect upon an outer drama of sensational incidents, and so far is clearly melodrama, transpontine melodrama. But for this outer drama, no less than for the inner drama which we have opposed to it, there is needed an exposition by means of words and sentiments; and in the exposition of the melodrama of Messrs. Jones and Herman, there is nothing transpontine. The critics are right, therefore, in thinking that in this work they have something new and highly praiseworthy, though it is not exactly what they suppose. They have a sensational drama in which the diction and sentiments do not overstep the modesty of nature. In general, in drama of this kind, the diction and sentiments, like the incidents, are extravagant, impossible, transpontine; here they are not. This is a very great merit, a very great advantage. The imagination can lend itself to almost any incidents, however violent; but good taste will always revolt against transpontine diction and sentiments. Instead of giving to their audience transpontine diction and sentiments, Messrs. Jones and Herman give them literature. Faults there are in The Silver King; Denver’s drunkenness is made too much of, his dream is superfluous, the peasantry are a little tiresome, Denver’s triumphant exit from Black Brake Wharf puzzles us.

But in general throughout the piece the diction and sentiments are natural, they have sobriety and propriety, they are literature. It is an excellent and hopeful sign to find playwrights capable of writing in this style, actors capable of rendering it, a public capable of enjoying it.

Another excellent sign should be noticed too. As everybody was said to know how the city of the Ephesians was a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, so may we say that everybody knows that, if not the city of the French, yet their modern drama, like their lighter newspapers, their novels, and their art in general, is a worshipper of the great goddess Lubricity. We imitate and adapt French pieces, and whether the adapter wishes it or not, some traces of the goddess can hardly fail to pass into his work. It is refreshing to find a native piece without the vestige of an appeal to her; and to find this piece, too, admirably given by the actors, passionately enjoyed by the audience. So at least it seems to your obedient servant.

December 6, 1882.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman‘s The Silver King was a hugely successful melodrama, which opened at the Princess’s Theatre on 16 November 1882 and ran for a year. Actor-manager Wilson Barrett became particularly associated with melodramas, including The Lights o’ London and The Silver King.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive