Richard III

Memoirs of John Quincy Adams

‘Edmund Kean as Richard III in “Richard III”‘.engraving, University of Illinois Digital Collections, https://digital.library.illinois.edu/items/85885f10-4e7d-0134-1db1-0050569601ca-9

Source: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874-77), vol. 3, pp. 466-467

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Colley Cibber), Richard III and Harlequin Horner, or, The Christmas pie, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 3 February 1817

Text: February 3rd [1817] … We went to Drury Lane, and saw “Richard the Third,” with the pantomime of “Harlequin Horner,” with a clown issuing from the Christmas pie. Kean performed Richard. The play is not exactly Shakspeare’s. Colley Cibber brought it out improved and amended, and John Kemble has improved upon it again. More than half the original tragedy, including many of the finest scenes, is discarded. Two or three scenes from the third part of Henry the Sixth are transferred to this play. There are modern additions, not well adapted to Shakspeare’s [sic] style, and his language itself is often altered, and seldom for the better. As it is, however, it has constantly been from Cibber’s time one of the standing favorites of the public on the English stage, and the character of Richard is one of the trying tests of their greatest tragic actors. I never saw it performed but once before, and that was at Boston in 1794. It is by many of Kean’s admirers considered as his greatest part; but his performance this night in some degree disappointed me. There is too much of rant in his violence, and not smoothness enough in his hypocrisy. He has a uniform fashion of traversing the stage from one side to the other when he has said a good thing, and then looks as if he was walking for a wager. At other times, he runs off from the stage with the gait of a running footman. In the passages of high passion he loses all distinct articulation and it is impossible to understand what he says. But he has much very good subsidiary pantomime, which is perhaps the first talent of a first-rate actor. He has a most keen and piercing eye, a great command and expression of countenance, and some transitions of voice of very striking effect. All the other male performers were indifferent, and the women below mediocrity. The two children (girls) were very good. The house was crowded, and the applause of Kean incessant during the tragedy. The fight between Richard and Richmond was skilful and vigorous. Kean always contrives to make a claptrap of his dying scenes. The clapping at his death continued five minutes long. The Duke and Duchess and Princess Sophia of Gloucester were present, and received with great applause. At their entrance, “God save the King” was performed by the orchestra, and sung by part of the players, the audience all standing.

Comments: John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829). In 1817, at the time of this diary entry, he was the US ambassador to Britain, before becoming Secretary of State to James Monroe. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) played Gloucester in a version of Shakespeare’s Richard III heavily rewritten by Colley Cibber. Harlequin Horner; or, Christmas Pie was a popular pantomime piece, first produced at Drury Lane in 1816.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Charles Turner, ‘Edmund Kean as Richard III’ (1814), via Wikiart

Source: Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. I, pp. 273-274

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 7 March 1814

Text: March 7th. — At Drury Lane, and saw Kean for the first time. He played Richard, I believe, better than any man I ever saw; yet my expectations were pitched too high, and I had not the pleasure I expected. The expression of malignant joy is the one in which he surpasses all men I have ever seen. And his most flagrant defect is want of dignity. His face is finely expressive, though his mouth is not handsome, and he projects his lower lip ungracefully; yet it is finely suited to Richard. He gratified my eye more than my ear. His action very often was that of Kemble, and this was not the worst of his performance; but it detracts from his boasted originality. His declamation is very unpleasant, but my ear may in time be reconciled to it, as the palate is to new cheese and tea. It often reminds me of Blanchard’s. His speech is not fluent, and his words and syllables are too distinctly separated. His finest scene was with Lady Anne, and his mode of lifting up her veil to watch her countenance was exquisite. The concluding scene was unequal to my expectation, though the fencing was elegant, and his sudden death-fall was shockingly real. But he should have lain still. Why does he rise, or awake rather, to repeat the spurious lines? He did not often excite a strong persuasion of the truth of his acting, and the applause he received was not very great. Mrs. Glover had infinitely more in the pathetic scene in which she, as Queen Elizabeth, parts from her children. To recur to Kean, I do not think he will retain all his popularity, but he may learn to deserve it better, though I think he will never be qualified for heroic parts. He wants a commanding figure and a powerful voice. His greatest excellences are a fine pantomimic face and remarkable agility.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. Edmund Kean (1787-1833) first came to general attention, in January 1814 playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane, which was followed by Gloucester in Richard III. His visceral performances excited huge audience enthusiasm and established his reputation. Queen Elizabeth was played by Julia Glover.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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.

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.