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