Times

Some Theatrical Audiences

Turlututu at the Britainnia Theatre, from Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 6 January 1877, via East London Theatre Archive

Source: Anon., ‘Some Theatrical Audiences’, All the Year Round, no. 442 (new series), 19 May 1877, pp. 273-278

Production: Frederick Marchant, Turlututu; or, The Three Enchanted Hats, Britannia Theatre, London, 1877

Text: Why should the function of the playhouse critic be confined exclusively to the players? Why should the Aristarchus of the stalls for ever project his eagle glance behind the footlights? Why should he take heed only of the mimic life enacted upon the stage, while humanity itself as it exists behind and around him, affording a definite standard by which the imitation may be judged, is all unnoticed in his oracular verdicts? There should be a critic for the public, as well as for the players. The behaviour of the audience, the degree of intelligence exhibited in their demeanour, and the interest they take in the performance, is quite as susceptible of judicial analysis as the deportment of the actors and actresses. There is as much matter for attentive consideration in the composition of the spectators, as in the cast of a play; there is as much of edification to be derived from studying their manners and character, as from the critical contemplation of eminent tragedians and accomplished artists in comedy-drama.

Theatrical audiences, moreover, have their idiosyncrasies, just as much as theatrical companies. The purely society, or orthodox fashionable audience; the fast fashionable audience; the domestic audience; the respectable audience; the mixed audience; the working-class audience; these are only some of the varieties which may be enumerated. The last-mentioned, the working-class audience, is itself capable of sundry subdivisions — the transpontine, the extreme East-end, the flash, the decorous, the criminal, the honest, the drunken, the sober. Only a few of these can be glanced at now, but few though these may be, they will be sufficient, if taken in connection with an article that appeared more than a quarter of a century ago in the weekly journal from which ALL THE YEAR ROUND sprang, to give some idea of the width and fruitfulness of this new field of dramatic criticism.

The purely society audience is not to be confounded with that chiefly characterised by the ubiquitous presence of amateur critics, of the tooth-pick school. The ultra-fashionable differ wholly from the fast fashionable houses. The tooth-pick critics come late, and enter somewhat noisily; when society goes to the play, it comports itself with frigid tranquillity, and in consideration of the hour at which the performance is fixed — eight P.M. — takes its seat with astounding punctuality. Society affects social comedies, sparkling with what it likes to speak of and consider epigrams, but what are in reality quaint and smart verbal antitheses and contrasts; the fast fashionable audience tolerates the drama pure and simple, but never really enjoys itself, save when burlesque is on the boards.

If the society audience is to be observed in its perfection, it is to Tottenham-street or Sloane-square that one should go. At the Thespian temple reared in either locality, the wants and wishes of society are considered and supplied with the tenderest solicitude, and society is good enough in return to be pretty constant in its patronage, and to be seated ns soon as, or very shortly after, the curtain rises. The degree of attention with which the performance is watched varies. Society is not demonstrative; it seldom applauds; it frequently accompanies the dialogue of the drama with a monotonous undertone of well-bred chatter, the general effect of which is rather that of a low and barely audible murmur, than of articulate sounds. Society is not moved to laughter or to pity. It occasionally smiles at the sparkling repartees which are so much in fashion; it seldom fails to smile when the situation placed before it on the stage is intended by the dramatist to appeal with exceptional strength to its tenderer sentiments. At times, a look of puzzled surprise at the weaker feelings of humanity, as depicted by actors or actresses, plays over society’s countenance. Bat, for the most part, its face is as passionless and undecipherable as the Sphinx. Altogether it is not an audience which inspires, save so far as a consciousness of its selectness can inspire, the actor; neither on the other hand does it discourage or disturb.

The audience in which the toothpick element is largely represented cares but little for comedy-dramas, and is insatiable of extravaganza and burlesque. As a concession to public usage, the burlesque of the evening is generally preceded by something in the form of a play—comic, farcical, melodramatic, or tragic. But it is not till nine or ten that the patrons, for whom the management chiefly caters, appear upon the spot. Whether they occupy private boxes or stalls, they are readily distinguishable. The amplitude of shirt-front and wristband, the strident tones, the echoing laugh, proclaim at once the tooth-pick critic. Some of these gentlemen are up from Aldershott bent on a metropolitan holiday; others are scions of, or it may be are, themselves, hereditary legislators; others again are baronets, guardsmen, and their hangers-on; others — and these perhaps constitute the majority — are gentlemen whose days are given to commercial pursuits in the City, and whose evenings are devoted to enjoyment at the West-end. Their devotion to the drama, so far as it goes, is beyond Suspicion; and if once an extravaganza or burlesque has won their favour, it is surprising how long that favour lasts. Their manners have not that reserve which signalise the purely society audience. They are demonstrative, and even turbulent. Their critical comments in the stalls, which are mostly of a strikingly personal nature, are made in a tone so loud that the actors and actresses can overhear. But whatever their demerits they are staunch and liberal cultivators of the dramatic art, and with- out their support the assistance of society alone would be insufficient for the material prosperity of the stage.

The audience which patronises the theatrical matinée presents various features, which are distinctively and peculiarly its own. It combines many of the attributes of what would be loosely styled Bohemianism with those of most orthodox respectability. It is conspicuous for the blending of the professional and theatrical element with the decorous suburban — for the meeting of the ladies and gentlemen of “the profession” and the denizens of Clapham, Sydenham, Hampstead, Highgate, as well as of quarters considerably more remote, upon common ground. Be the occasion one of those benefits which have been witnessed on a remarkable scale in the course of the last two or three months, or the afternoon performance of a farce which is for a while the talk of the town, or the appearance of some Gallic histrio of note, you shall observe unmistakable specimens of these and other classes of playgoers congregated in the auditorium. The lady to whom you sit next in the stalls is the most finished and artistic of living actresses in comedy-drama; on your right, with dishevelled locks and keenly-piercing eyes, is an eminent tragedian; just before you a highly promising jeune premier, the scion of a famous house, who “would be an actor;” just behind you the protagonist in a drama of domestic life, who from the unparalleled success achieved by the play seems likely to figure in the same rôle incessantly to the end of his natural days. There, too, are the invalids of both sexes, who love the stage, but to whom the night air is the deadliest of foes; those also, who inform you that they should patronise the drama more frequently than they do were not the hours of the performance such that they interfere with the consumption of their dinner or their night’s rest; those again, already mentioned, who live outside the metropolitan radius, but who have objections to the dissipation and the late hours involved in theatre trains; those, lastly, who inform you that they never go to theatres on principle, but they occasionally make an exception in favour of afternoon performances. This final class is a numerous one, and is almost coextensive with that which sees no harm in the “entertainment” but a great deal of harm in the play. An expedition to the Thespian shrine by gaslight is an abomination to be eschewed; but though when the portal of the theatre be once passed gas is still the illuminating medium employed, the theatrical visit has an innocence which it could not possess if undertaken at the hour when Melrose should be viewed aright. Thus it is that the theatrical audience which affects the matinee is a motley composition of parsons and players, severely devout spinsters, superior men, and strong-minded women, lovers of pleasure and lovers of tranquillity, the strong and the feeble, the London lounger and the country cousin.

As for the spectacle which the regulation theatrical audience presents in the older houses on ordinary nights, it would be as impossible to detail any novel feature as to discover some theory, hitherto unbroached, of the madness of Hamlet, or some excellences, as yet ignored, in the poetry of Pope. What they were in the days of the Rejected Addresses, that they are now, due allowance being made for difference in costume and the advance of social civilisation generally. Perhaps we have become more genteel than we were; perhaps theatrical audiences generally are less demonstrative and impressionable. It may be that the British public devotes itself with less abandonment, less surrender of its whole moral and intellectual being, to the entertainment provided on the stage. But that the popularity of the theatre has not diminished, we know from the records of managers and comparison of figures. Theatres are more numerous; theatrical audiences more representative, not only because the population has grown, but because with the growth of population there has been developed a new taste for theatrical entertainment, while the prejudices and scruples have been swept away.

Modern taste is curiously compounded of a liking for extremes and opposites. It is elaborate, and it is plain. It finds pleasure in the most complex of forms, as of costumes; and yet is delighted with what, at least, wears the appearance of simplicity. Are not broad beans and bacon a fashionable dish at great dinner-parties? Is it not only two years ago that the melodies produced by musical-glasses — slightly disguised in character — were the rage in society? Do not full-grown men and women puzzle themselves with the riddles, and revel in the pastime erewhile confined to the nursery and school-room? A penchant for the juvenile is in vogue with modern society. Surely this was never displayed more conspicuously than in the favour with which a stage-performance of children, already noticed in this Journal, was received during the past winter months. The theatre-goer who makes it his duty to meditate on the sights of the auditorium, as well as the spectacles on the stage, never could have enjoyed a more fertile field for his observation than the Royal Adelphi, when the Children’s Pantomime was in course of representation. There were children by scores amongst the audience; but there were grown-up people as well, and, strange to say, it was the latter — the papas and mammas — who seemed to relish the thing the most heartily. As for the boys and girls, they gazed, indeed, intently upon what they beheld. The Lilliputian actors and actresses were to them as fairy children; it was difficult for the youngest of the audience, as they looked at the members of the juvenile company, to realise that little Goody Twoshoes and Boy Blue were made of the same mortal clay as themselves. Others, again, there were, or, let us use the present tense, and — fancying the whole scene before us — say are, who have just arrived at that age which affects superiority to whatever is purely childish. To laugh at the doings of the urchin-artists is beneath them; and so they sit as still as they can, while some may assume an approach to contemptuous condescension, leaving all the laughter to their elders, who, to speak the truth, discharge the task heartily. But it is not mere unreflecting amusement which, to judge from the expression on the rows of faces, possesses the adult audience. There are looks which tell of anxious, almost maternal, interest in the doings of the wee players. There is the young mother, with her chicks about her, who, as she directs her gaze towards the stage, seems to be looking wistfully into a more distant perspective. Is there not something of sadness visible in those soft, clear brown eyes? Is it an inevitable maternal impulse, or only an odd speculative instinct, which makes her ponder for a moment on what the dim, concealed future may have in store for those children on the stage; and, while she thus questions herself, press more closely the wondering little one at her side? Contrast with such a sympathetic critic as this those gentlemen and ladies of the audience who look on with an air of unconcerned surprise. “Curious little mortals; they really do it very well,” is a phrase that drops from the lips of these. Others, again, regard the whole thing with eyes of puzzled interest; and others — they are the oldest of all there — are, to judge from their faces, the amused recipients of anew sensation. Young men, too, there are, and young girls, recently “come out,” in the audience, whose countenances, whether eloquent of supercilious patronage or tender solicitude, are not less a book wherein we may read instructive things.

The scene is changed, and we have transported ourselves to a different quarter of the town. It is only a few nights ago that we took a cab from St. James’s, and were conveyed to the transpontine Surrey. It was an enthusiastic, nay, a noisy audience which crowded Mr. Holland’s theatre from floor to roof; but it was well-behaved, most cordial, and sincere, if most vehement in the applause which it showered on its favourites. There was nothing specially instructive about it unless, indeed, it be its countenance of delight. There were visible social gradations in the audience. The two rows of stalls — the rest of the area was occupied by the pit — were filled by the elite of the vicinity of Kennington and a few pilgrims from the West End; the boxes were occupied, for the most part, by the magnates of local trade, and by young gentlemen who had evidently formed a party for the evening. It is somewhat late in the year to speak about pantomimes; but the Surrey pantomime, it may be said, in passing, was exceptionally good; and, as the audience was more than commonly demonstrative in its expression of good-will and encouragement, so did the actors, from the opening to the final scene, fling themselves with a heartiness into the fun of the parts which they were creating, that might have done the jaded critic of society real good. But to-night we have gone much farther afield than the Surrey Theatre. Is our cabman one of the exclusive Jehus who decline to ply east of Temple-bar? It is certain that he has deposited us at our destination only after much circuitous wandering, many enquiries as to direct routes, some doubt on our parts as to whether the goal proposed was practicable. How very few of those who live West know anything of that world which we have traversed in our drive due East — have any idea of the better and more attractive aspects of the most unfashionable quarter of London! True, we have threaded some stifling thoroughfares, where flaming gas-jets have lit up bulks on which malodorous fish are exposed for sale, and whose surface is covered with decaying vegetables and unsightly morsels; have seen many signs of misery and vice; much filth; much squalor; much of dirt, and rags, and drunkenness. But we have emerged from all this now. We find ourselves being whirled through broad streets, in which are bright, cleanly shops, full of cleanly, sober people, flanked by houses, unpicturesque, it may be, but substantial and healthy. The whole place is airy and light; there is much bustling about on the part of neatly-clad women, and children, and men; for it is Saturday night, and the week’s shopping is in progress.

But a hundred yards farther to go — so one of the numerous guides whom we have been compelled to consult informs us — and we shall be there. Where is “there?” “Britannia, the Great Theatre, Hoxton,” where there is to be seen “an entirely new, magnificent, comic Christmas Pantomime,” by name “Turlututu;” and at the Britannia — sharply turning a corner and coming on a frontage brilliantly illuminated with gas — we arrive accordingly. There are few hangers-on about the door. A gentleman attached to the establishment, who is lounging on the steps with a colossal cigar in his mouth, informs us that there is not standing room in the house. But we have already engaged a box, and to it we are led by the most civil of attendants through long passages, their floors unlined by matting, and their brick walls covered only with paint. There is no effort at decoration, and for sanitary reasons it is as well that such should be the case. It is a peculiar smell that which assails the nostrils — a component odour, whose chief ingredients seem to be the perfume of disinfecting fluids and the fragrance of very coarse tobacco smoke. But what does the outside atmosphere matter? It is the inside sight which we have come to see, and that sight is not behind the footlights, but before it, consists not of the actors, but the audience. Imagine a vast semicircular structure, more capacious in appearance — though the result may be due to the absence of all trappings and other ornaments — than Drury-lane, packed with between five and six thousand men and women; not a vacant space on which the eye can rest, above, below, around; heads and bodies rising tier upon tier, till in the distance they dwindle to indistinct specks of humanity. Gallery, upper boxes, dress circle, pit — these comprise the divisions of the huge edifice; the box in which we are being the only one used this evening, at least, as private. The stage-boxes opposite are occupied by some dozen spectators, each paying two shillings a head, the price of admission to other parts of the house varies from one shilling to threepence. Next to the enormous multitude collected, the great feature which strikes us is the character and the demeanour of the crowd. The great proportion are working-men and women, clad in their working clothes; a few are mechanics and artisans, in broad cloth and dark tweed. As for the women, they are all neatly, but none showily attired. There is a fair sprinkling of children in arms. Some thirty per cent. of the entire audience are probably boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen. It is not a polished assemblage; the faces are for the most part grimy, and the hair unkempt, but the patient attention and tranquillity of the huge concourse are quite admirable. Nuts are cracked, Brobdingnagian sandwiches, as thick as bricks, and of much the same hue, are consumed, foaming pots of porter are quaffed. It is no polite show of light refreshments which is witnessed, but good, solid eating, and earnest drinking. Yet these do not prevent the audience from diligently noting all that is said and done on the stage. Nothing could be more orderly, nothing could be more decent. As for the entertainment itself, it is in character quite unexceptionable. There is no expression nor allusion, in dialogue or song, which can raise a blush; no phrase or sentiment which can shock the most susceptibly loyal of subjects. Surely, a mighty instrument for the harmless amusement of five thousand of the poor of London, in the heart of such a district as Hoxton, at an average of ninepence a head, such as the Britannia theatre, is a boon for which the moralist and philanthropist may well be grateful.

Comments: The two main London theatres described here are the Surrey, in Lambeth, and the Britannia in Hoxton, a favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, who had founded the periodical All the Year Round. The earlier article to which this piece refers was George Augustus Sala’s ‘Down Whitechapel Way‘ [qv], Household Words, 1 November 1851, which includes a vivid description of a ‘penny gaff’ theatre. Turlututu was a fantastical pantomime, adapted from a French original by Frederick Marchant, which ran at the Britannia for over thirteen weeks 1876-77.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Queen Victoria’s Journals

‘Van Amburgh in the Wild Cat Cage’, London Art Journal (1879), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Alexandrina Victoria, journal entry for 24 January 1839

Text: At 10 I went with Lady Breadalbane (who came after dinner) and Miss Murray (in my carriage), Lehzen, Lord Conyngham, Lord Lilford, Lord Alfred, and Sir Robert Otway (in the others) to Drury Lane. We came in about 20 minutes before the Lions come on. Van Amburgh surpassed even himself, and was miraculous; he stayed a much longer time than usual in the 1st cage, and all the animals, were much more lively than usual, in the 2nd cage, as usual, the little lamb was brought in, while he was reclining on the lion’s body and head, and put before the Lion’s nose, which he, as usual, bore with indifference; when one of the Leopards, the smallest of all the animals, and a sneaking little thing, came, seized the lamb, and ran off with it; all the others, except the lion, and all those in the other cage making a rush to help in the slaughter, it was an awful moment, and we thought all was over, when Van Amburgh rushed to the Leopard, tore the lamb, unhurt, from the Leopard, which he beat severely,- took the lamb in his arms,- only looked at all the others, and not one moved, though in the act of devouring the lamb. It was beautiful and wonderful; and he was immensely applauded; he held the lamb for a few minutes in his arms; and then sent it out of the cage, but remained himself some little time in the cage, making these animals obey just as usual. After the Pantomime was over, we waited in a little ante-room till everybody was gone, and the house quite cleared, and then we all went down on the Stage, which was walled in by Scenery; and the cages with the animals again brought on; there they were, and most beautiful beasts they are, so sleek, so well-conditioned – and so wild – that really Van Amburgh’s power seems little short of a miracle. They had not been fed since early the preceding day, and consequently were wilder than usual; Van Amburgh, who was in plain clothes, is a tall, but not very powerful looking man; young, very modest, quiet and unassuming; with a mild expression, a receding forehead, and very peculiar eyes, which don’t exactly squint, but have a cast in them. I asked him if that had ever happened before with the lamb; he replied: “Sometimes it does; it did the first time I took one in”; but the lamb was unhurt; they then fed them, and they roared, and fought with one another terrifically; but it was very fine. I didn’t allow Van Amburgh to go into the cages, but he went up to them, and stroked them and they obeyed him wonderfully; he told Lord Conyngham that they were all full grown, but two, when he first had them; the large lion in the furthest cage is the fiercest, he says; and the weight of the leopard, which he carries on his head and shoulders, and makes perform every sort of beautiful trick, is 14 stone. He scarcely ever uses an iron bar to them, but only a stick made of Rhinoceros hide, which he showed us. We came home at ½ p.12 …

Comments: Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), later just Victoria, was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to her death, and additionally titled Empress of India from 1876. She kept up a journal from 1832 until almost the end of her life. The journal records many visits to the theatre, particularly in her younger days. She was particularly fond of the animal shows of the American trainer Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865), who was renowned for acts such as putting his head inside a lion’s jaws, but also notorious for the mistreatment of the animals in his menagerie. This occasion was the third occasions on which she had seen Van Amburgh’s act, which a regular part of the Drury Lane programme at this time.

Links: Queen Victoria’s Journals

The Night Side of Europe

Exterior of the Moscow Art Theatre, via The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 93-99

Production: Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Nikolai Stavrogin, Moscow Art Theatre, Moscow, September 1913

Text: It was the first night of “The Possessed” at the Moscow Art Theatre. I had been warned to be in my seat at eight o’clock as it is the custom at the Moscow Art Theatre to close the doors at that hour and allow no one in the auditorium after the play has begun. So I arrived early for I was anxious to study the audience at this famous theatre in the heart of the Czar’s dominions.

A few minutes in the foyer were sufficient to convince me that the first performance of the Dostoyefsky drama would be witnessed by a gathering of “intellectuals.” There were no gorgeous uniforms, no elaborate gowns. Less than a dozen persons were in evening dress. Yet the orchestra chairs were five roubles ($2.50) each.

A warning bell sent me hurrying to find my seat. I was just in time for the doors were being closed. A few moments later — promptly at eight o’clock — the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose. There was no overture. In fact, there is no orchestra pit in the Moscow Art Theatre. When music is needed it is played under the stage.

“The Possessed” proved to be a succession of detached scenes from Dostoyefsky’s novel of the same name rather than its dramatization. The Moscow Art Theatre is equipped with a double decked revolving stage which enables scene to follow scene with only the darkening of the auditorium for a few moments to punctuate the intervals. Unlike most revolving stages it moved noiselessly.

The acting was magnificent. Although I did not understand a single word that was spoken I was able to follow the story of the play. What higher praise can be accorded actors!

I expected an outburst of applause at the end of the act but when the curtain fell the greater part of the audience silently left their seats for the foyer-promenade. Applause is never accorded the artistes at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nor are curtain calls ever allowed. Realism and naturalness above everything else are striven for.

During the second act M. Stanislauski [sic], one of the directors of the theatre, took me behind the scenes to see the double decked revolving stage in operation. There I met three Russian priests who were watching the performance. Priests in Russia are forbidden to attend theatrical performances but many of them visit the Moscow Art Theatre and witness the performances from the wings, safe from the public gaze. M. Stanislauski showed me through the dressing rooms which are so arranged that the male and female players do not meet until they reach the stage made up for their parts. They have separate green rooms and separate exits. In no theatre in the world is the comfort of the actor given so much attention.

At the end of the second act I was presented to Madame Knipper, the widow of the famous Tchekoff, who was enacting the leading role in the new play. I also had the honor of shaking hands with Mlle. Koreneff and M. Katchaloff, two other leading players. A first night in most playhouses is a nerve-racking affair — neither players nor managers have time for idle conversation. But at the Moscow Art Theatre a first performance after three months of rehearsals runs as smoothly as clockwork.

Never has the old adage, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” been better exemplified than by this unique theatre. Beginning as an amateur theatrical society, without funds or wealthy members, it has become in little more than a decade one of the foremost theatrical organizations in the world. Its home is the best equipped playhouse in Europe. And its productions are the most perfect given on any stage.

Although in Russia the Moscow Art Theatre is looked upon as the first theatre in the land it is almost unknown outside of the Czar’s Empire, except in Germany. Its company has only appeared in the leading cities of Russia and a few of the larger German capitals. Moscow is so far off the beaten track of travel that few American writers on theatrical subjects visit it. And naturally, as Russian is understood by so few people interested in the drama, the Moscow Art Theatre must remain “a thing apart.” But its influence is already so great that no one interested in theatrical affairs can afford to be ignorant of it, or to ignore it.

The Moscow Art Theatre was the first playhouse in the world to have a double decked revolving stage. Prof. Max Reinhardt adopted the idea for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and later the idea was copied by the designer of the New Theatre in New York (now the Century Opera House).

But it is in the conduct of the theatre and its productions that this playhouse is the most interesting. It is a co-operative organization owned by thirty-one actors and actresses, who appear on its stage. The entire organization consists of 360 men and women who devote their time exclusively to the artistic, financial and operating side of the playhouse. In addition to its two directors, who have practically equal responsibility, there is a governing board that passes on all important matters. After ten years’ service an actor or actress becomes a shareholder, and there is a pension system for superannuated players, as well as funds for cases of emergency. Every player is given ten weeks’ vacation with pay — their services being contracted for by the year. Thus it will be seen that from the actor’s standpoint the Moscow Art Theatre is about ideal.

Only three new productions are made each year. However, a repertory of twelve is given, former successes being repeated as often as the receipts warrant. At least three months are devoted to the preparation of each play. Consequently only finished productions are given. While the theatre is the home of the Russian drama, the dramas of other countries are not neglected. Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Hauptmann are almost as much in evidence as Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol and Tchekoff.

It is very difficult to obtain a seat for a new production at this unique theatre. For the first ten performances of each new play every seat is subscribed for, which, of course, gives the theatre working capital. The expenses of the organization are about $350,000 a year, but as its receipts are always over $400,000 it is very prosperous. However, it makes very little money in Moscow, where a full house means only $1,500. Its season in Petersburg, where it plays in the Imperial Mikhailovsky Theatre (the Royal French Theatre) means $4,000 a night, and in Kieff, Warsaw and Odessa it plays to enormous business.

The third act was on before M. Stanislauski and I returned to the auditorium. Of course he was able to pass the closed doors and he sat with me until the final curtain fell.

“Is it a success?” I asked as we emerged to the brilliantly lighted foyer.

“I think so,” he replied simply, “but we will know in the morning when we see what the critics have to say.”

Moscow is one of the few cities in the world that takes its dramatic critics seriously.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The Moscow Art Theatre company (MAT) was co-founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski, and was highly influential in its advocacy of naturalistic theatre, making its mark in particular with the plays of Anton Chekhov. The production of Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Nikolai Stavrogin, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky‘s novel The Possessed, became controversial after it stirred Maxim Gorky to write vehement articles in protest at MAT’s staging of a reactionary novel. The performers included Olga Knipper, widow of Anton Chekhov and Vasili Kachalov. A different version of this essay was published as ‘Moscow Art Theatre’ in the American journal, The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust
Alternative version published in The Theatre

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 O.P. War

George and Isaak Cruikshank, ‘Acting magistrates committing themselves being their first appearance on this stage as performed at the National Theatre Covent Garden. Sepr 18 1809’ © The Trustees of the British Museum. The Riot Act was read from the stage on 18 September, but the placards, rattles etc. did not start appearing until the following day.

Source: Thomas Tegg, The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the O.P. War, in Poetic Epistles, or Hudibrastic Letters, From Ap Simpkins in Town, to his Friend Ap Davies in Wales; including all the best songs, placards, toasts &c. &c.Which were written, exhibited, and given en the Occasion; with illustrative notes (London: Thomas Tegg, 1810), pp. 1-6

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, plus The Quaker, New Covent Garden Theatre, London, 18 September 1809

Text: LETTER I

From Ap Simpkins to Ap Davies

SINCE now the O.P. battle’s o’er,
And peace the partisans restore,
To you, Ap Davies, my dear friend,
A brief account of all I’ll send,
From the beginning to the end:
But, lest your patience I should tire,
And send you more than you’d desire,
Lest I too many letters might
On this theatric contest write,
Which letters, as they’ll go by post.
Would in the end some shillings cost,
On leading points I’ll only dwell,
And all that’s entertaining tell.

Where the old playhouse lately blazed,
In Covent Garden, soon was raised
Another playhouse, as intended,
On which the managers expended
A sum indeed beyond all bounds,
It was thrice fifty thousand pounds!!!
In ten month’s time it was erected,
And from th’ exterior much expected.
But though so very grand without,
Within, ’tis very plain no doubt,
‘Twas on the eighteenth of September,
(The day I very well remember)
For which Macbeth was advertised;
A play so generally prized.
Near to the doors what numbers push’d!
As soon as opened in they rush’d.
At first the pit seem’d rather dull —
By six o’clock the house was full;
And the first lady that appear’d,
With loud huzzas by all was cheer’d.
The band struck up God save the King,
And several times the song they sing :
Then Rule Britannia next they play’d,
Which some to sing also essay’d.
The band their music might have sav’d,
While hats and handkerchiefs were wav’d.
At length the curtain up they drew,
And Kemble on the stage we view.
To give us an address he came.
To talk of “sparks from Greece” — the “flame
Of “an illumined age” — “the fire
Of Shakspeare,” which we must admire:
But so vociferously they roar’d,
I did not hear a single word.
The play began, but at this time
‘Twas like the Circus pantomime,
And gave as little satisfaction
As Elliston’s ballet of action.
When Kemble entered as Macbeth,
It was in vain he spent his breath,
For not a word could reach the ear:
E’en Mrs. Siddons I cou’dn’t hear.
With noise was Charles Kemble hail’d —
The uproar every where prevail’d.
“Off! off!” “Old prices!” were the cries;
“No Catalani!” and “No rise!”
What hissing, yelling, howling, groaning!
What barking, braying, hooting, moaning!
The people bellow’d, shouted, storm’d,
The actors in dumb show perform’d.
Those in the pit stood up with rage,
And turn’d their backs upon the stage.
Yes, my dear friend, their backs they turn’d,
And thus were the performers spurn’d.
The tragedy thus tragediz’d,
Brunton came forward, as surmis’d,
T’ announce for the next night the play;
But still they bark, and yell, and bray.
I heard him not, and all could see,
Was his lips move, then exit he.
The Quaker was the farce, they say;
I thought it was the Devil to pay
In short, it went on like the play.
I’m certain that the quaker quaked.
Each head too with the tumult ach’d.
About ELEVEN, or before,
The stage amusements all were o’er
But not until the clock struck one
Were those before the curtain done;
The cry of “Managers!” went round;
From all parts did the cry resound.
The eager, the impetuous crowd,
Then for old prices call’d aloud.
In vain they call’d — they brandish’d sticks,
The boards too trembled with their kicks;
When lo! upon the stage, indeed,
Two magistrates — yes, Nares and Read,
Made their appearance — ’tis a fact —
They came to read the Riot Act,
But all these worthies wish’d to say
Was treated like the farce and play —
“No magistrates! off! off! away!
Let Harris, if you please, appear,
Or send John Philip Kemble here.”
They thought to make the gentry quiet,
To prove that words were acts of riot:
But ‘twould not do — “Off! off! enough!”
So exeunt Ambo in a huff.
And now the galleries began:
They curs’d the building and the plan.
They thought the managers unkind —
They were in pigeon-holes confin’d.
Pat cries — ” I will be squeez’d to death;
I will be kilt for want of breath.”
Those in the upper boxes now
Assisted in the general row,
And, ‘midst their fury and their heat,
They happen’d to break down a seat.
Impossible, in such a fray,
But that some benches must give way;
At this, however, much displeased,
The Bow-street runners came and seized
Two or three gentlemen — they swore —
They dragg’d them out — their coats they tore.
These men it seems, on this condition,
Had to all parts a free admission.
‘Twas to the managers’ disgrace.
An officer, in such a place,
Should, uninvited, show his face.
But to the rest — the bell was heard,
And engines* on the stage appear’d.
This gave the folk some discontent:
They thought that Mr. Kemble meant
To play upon them. This gave rise
To further hisses, groans, and cries.
Some in the pit now form’d a ring,
They danc’d, and sung God save the King;
And while performing these wild feats,
They play’d the devil with the seats.
No matter — they evinc’d their spite,
Then bade the managers good night;
And I the same must bid my friend —
But take my word—on this depend —
My pen I will resume again, –
Till when your servant I remain.

Strand, Jan. 1810. S.

* The introduction of the water-engines on the stage was, it is asserted, through a mistake. Engines are kept in the theatre, and placed on the stage after the evening’s performances, in case of danger, particularly as the fire offices have refused to insure the house to the full amount. Mr. Kemble perceiving from his private box that the audience were not gone, ordered the bell to be rung for the stage lights to be replaced. This order was misunderstood by the prompter, and instead of the lights the engines were brought upon the stage. Certainly they might have been designedly brought on to intimidate the malcontents, but without the manager’s knowledge.

Comments: Thomas Tegg (1776–1845) was an English bookseller, publisher and author. His long poem ‘The O.P. War’ documents, through a series of ‘letters’ the turmoil that followed the decision made by Covent Garden Theatre to raise ticket prices to help cover the cost of the rebuilding of the theatre after the fire of 20 September 1808. At the re-opening of what was named New Covent Garden Theatre on 18 September 1809, and for three months thereafter, there were vehement protests inside the theatre from audience members against the price rises, dubbed the Old Price, or O.P., Riots. The actor-manager John Philip Kemble was eventually forced to lower the prices. Tegg’s poem documents the events in some detail across eighteen letters, with annotations as above. Letter I covers the day of the re-opening. The Riot Act was indeed read from the stage during the evening. The production of Macbeth included John Philip Kemble as Macbeth, his sister Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and their brother Charles Kemble as Macduff, though such was the noise throughout (and for the afterpiece The Quaker) that the performances were rendered inaudible.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Land of the Latins

Source: Ashton Rollins Willard, The Land of the Latins (New York/London: Longmans, Green, 1902), pp. 143-147

Text: At Turin, to turn to one of the lesser capitals, there are a number of theatres, but among them the one which rises most distinctly before my mental vision, is the Teatro Carignano, a playhouse which may possibly be quite as old as the Valle, but which is infinitely superior to it in interior beauty. The Carignano of course follows the old pattern, with its box-fronts rising tier above tier to the very dome, — the only pattern of theatre which was known in Europe a century ago. In this particular it resembles the Valle, but where the Roman interior is dreary and bare this is covered with elaborate decoration. The whole surface of the box-fronts seems to be overlaid with gold-leaf subdued to a dull lustre, and in this series of gilt frames the occupants of the boxes are set off in picturesque relief against the deep crimson hangings. Up on the ceiling some clever hand has painted a flight of graceful figures in soft colors, forming a suitable and harmonious piece of decoration. The drop-curtain is not occupied with advertisements but is ornamented — or was as I remember it — with a Venetian picture, showing a high terrace in the foreground and a stretch of lagoon under a sunset sky behind.

It was in this theatre that we first saw Eleonora Duse — saw her in one of those pitiful plays of modern social life of which Camille is the prototype and which has had, alas, so many, many after-types. As we went to the Carignano that evening we found ourselves wondering what particular shape the unfortunate happenings of the play would assume. Would the husband or the wife be the criminal? And how would the wife die in the last act? For that she would come to a tragic end in one way or another, there was little room to doubt. Our preconceptions of what the stuff of the drama would be were, as it proved, wholly justified. It happened to be the husband who was unfaithful, — and the wife’s suffering, which commenced with the first rising of the curtain at nine o’clock, was continued until midnight, and ended finally in suicide. A very large and very representative audience, containing elements from every section of Turinese society, and delegations of reporters from other cities, went to listen to the unhappy tale and showed their appreciation of it by frequent applause while the scenes were in progress and by clamorous recalls after each descent of the curtain. One of the notable features about the tragedienne’s acknowledgment of these noisy plaudits was that she never for a moment issued from her role. If the applause continued persistent after the descent of the curtain, as it generally did, a door would open from the subterranean recesses of the Venetian terrace and the slight and frail-looking figure would come into view. A few sad steps would be taken with a melancholy smile before the footlights and the sorrowful figure would disappear through the other door. There were none of the grimaces by which the “artist” in general seeks to compensate the audience for the honor of its approbation. The unity of the role was never once broken. The note of tragedy was consistently maintained.

It was Flavio Ando who sustained the second rôle on this particular evening, — an ungrateful part which, used as he is to rendering such characters, he must have disliked to assume. Possibly this excused or explained his imperfect memorizing of his lines, which at certain points rather marred the effect of his acting. The rôle of the prompter has not become a wholly superfluous one in Italian theatres, and on this particular evening the invisible man in the hooded box had to recite many passages of the second actor’s part. It was, to say the least, trying to the nerves of the listeners to hear the words which Ando was to utter, hissed out in a more than audible whisper, before they were taken up by the actor himself; and at certain points where this halting echo was supposed to represent an impetuous and spontaneous outburst of passion the effect bordered on the ridiculous.

As to the acting of the heroine, the distinctive quality in it which impressed us at that time, and which has re-impressed us on every occasion when we have heard her since, was its poignant naturalism. She seemed to be not so much putting on agony as actually suffering. The absence of conventional gestures was one of the incidents of her art which contributed very much to this general effect. Intonation was much. The perfect naturalness of the tone and the total suppression of the declamatory and rhetorical counted for a great deal. But the avoidance of “gestures” in the technical sense, certainly had its share. Eleonora Duse as we all know does not keep her hands still. She does not walk about with them glued to her side. But what she does with them is what a natural woman does. She smooths out the folds of her dress. She arranges her hair. She does a thousand and one things which are feminine, which are human, which are natural; and she does not wave them and pose them in the flourishes and the curves which have so long been favored by the artificial persons of the stage.

Comments: Ashton Rollins Willard (1858-1918) was an American art critic, who specialised in Italian art. This extract comes from a chapter on theatres in a his travel book on Italy. The Teatro Carignano in Torino opened in 1753. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was an Italian actress of worldwide renown, the performances celebrated for the depth of their sensitivity. She performed in this unidentified production alongside the Italian actor Flavio Andò (1851-1915).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Our Paris Correspondent, ‘Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet’, The Era, 27 May 1899, p. 13

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, Paris, May 1899

Text: After triumphing brilliantly a couple of years ago as Alfred De Musset‘s youthful, effeminate Lorenzaccio – a Florentine Hamlet – Madame Bernhardt aspired to impersonate Shakespeare’s towering hero, and through this venturesome ordeal, on which the courageous artiste set her heart, she has passed with truly remarkable success. Not that the performance leaves no room for criticism – quite the reverse – but it is attractive, curiously fascinating in its singularity and will doubtless create much interest at your side. Here the new Hamlet has been received with enthusiasm, the actress’s thick and thin admirers going into the wildest ecstasies the first night, while succeeding audiences have cordially confirmed this favourable verdict. The new prose version of the play is to all intents and purposes a literal translation, written in sound style, and rather too accurate, perhaps, the close adhesion to the English text causing at times a certain amount of obscurity. But MM. Morand and Schwob’s reading, if somewhat heavy, must be pronounced far and away more satisfactory than that of Dumas and Maurice, which is in verse, or than that of MM. Cressonois and Samson, also in verse, which we saw at the Porte-St.-Martin some thirteen years since, when, by-the-way, Madame Sarah Bernhardt played Ophelia to the Hamlet of M. Philippe Garnier, a part that did not suit her talent. Excessive length is a drawback to the new play. No fewer than fifteen scenes were presented on Saturday, witha pretty long wait between each, shifting being still in its infancy on our stage, so that half-past one had struck before the curtain fell. Pruning and splicing have since been adopted, three scenes have been cut out, but still, starting at eight, the close is not reached until a quarter past twelve. And during all that time the spectators have eyes and ears (or nobody but Madame Bernhardt, though Ophelia’s mad scene, with Mdlle. Mellot’s pretty singing, seems to please them. So poor is the rest of the cast that the celebrated actress forms the sole attraction, and it must be said she proves equal to the occasion.

As a general rule, Madame Bernhardt throws herself into a rôle for ten minutes in each act; during the remainder of the time she merely dallies with it. In the present instance her energy never flags, and apart from occasional want of action, a manifest reluctance to express passion otherwise than by voice, remaining stock still when she should move about – as in the comparison of the portraits, which are painted (very badly) on the wall, not in lockets – the actress exerts herself with an intensity so untiring that it is marvellous how she can bear the strain of such arduous efforts. Her interpretation shows, as I have said, attractive singularity. Far from being “fat and short of breath,” the new Hamlet is a vivacious, excitable, almost fidgetty stripling, whose febrile agitation bears no resemblance to our ideal of the musing, melancholy Dane. I heard people say that this rendering of the part made it more comprehensible than any they had hitherto seen, and fully coincide in their view. The hesitation, the weakness, and the inability of such a slender youth to cope with the difficulties of the terrible task he has set himself are too obvious to need any explanation or reflection. They “jump to the eyes,” as the French say, simplifying exceedingly the signification of the complex rôle. But is this nervous, impetuous Hamlet Shakespeare’s? I think not. At Madame Bernhardt’s hands he loses his earnestness, the dreamy, tristful features of his character as good as disappear. Nay, he becomes so waggish, that even in the dialogue preceding the play some his gamierie prompts him to pluck the cap off the head of the candle lighter! Despite, however, blemishes of the sort that render Madame Bernhardt’s delineation untruthful, it is undoubtedly attractive. In the scenes with the Ghost she is admirably effective, and though the soliloquies – more especially the most famous of them – are delivered in the monotonous, clanking tones which the actress has adopted, her elocution is telling throughout, her attitudes and gestures are graceful. The performance is more emotional than impressive; feminine in its feverish restlessness and excessive juvenility.

Some of the “business” deserves notice. In the Play scene the King and Queen take their places on a sort of high dais, to which steps lead up on either side, the front resembling that of a pulpit, forming an inverted V with the point cut off. On the floor below Hamlet reclines on cushions by Ophelia’s side, and raising himself to watch Claudius, screens his face with the girl’s long flaxen tresses instead of with the traditional fan. In the end his excitement leads him to climb the barrier, and, when the conscience stricken monarch rises, Hamlet, seizing a torch from the footlights, thrusts it into the face of his father’s murderer, who rushes off screaming with terror. This arrangement of the scene struck me as fantastic, for, by having to peer over the balustrade, Hamlet is obliged to betray his purpose before it is attained, but Claudius does not seem to notice him, being intent on the play beyond. In the Churchyard scene, neither Laertes nor Hamlet leap into the grave, and at its close the latter falls on the heap of newly dug earth. Laertes and the Prince are each armed with a rapier and dagger in the concluding scene, but do not employ the latter weapon. Hamlet, when pinked in the hand, takes off his glove, and, perceiving Laertes start and shudder on seeing the blood flowing from the wound, divines the treachery. Setting upon his adversary in a furious bout, he disarms him, and as Laertes hastens to pick up his sword, prevents him by placing himself before it, offering him his own rapier with a glance and gesture too significant to be denied, taking the poison weapon himself. This modification to the customary exchange “while scuffling” seems to me an improvement.

Little else need, I think, he said of the performance. Madame Bernhardt’s company do not shine in it, and with the exception of Mdlle. Mellot, whose pleasing singing has been already noticed, but otherwise an insignificant Ophelia, there is not a name to mention, all being below mediocrity, provincial and stagy to a degree. The scenery is very handsome, the scenic arrangements faultless, and the costumes are in perfect taste, except that of the King, which is hideous; he looks like an old woman. Madame Bernhardt has fair hair falling low on the neck, and wears a short black satin tunic bordered with sable, long black hose, and a long, narrow silken black cloak which trails slightly. A soupçon of white ruffles on the breast is the only relief to this sombre garb, which makes the gifted actress look more slender than ever. Some impressive incidental music has been contributed by M. Gabriel Pierné, and Ophelia’s song is pretty.

Madame Bernhardt, I should not omit to mention, is not the first French actress who has played the part of the Danish Prince, Madame Judith having obtained considerable success in the rôle some thirty years since, and in her case Shakespeare’s hero was by no means a “Miss Hamlet.”

Comments: Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) first played Hamlet on 20 May 1899 at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris, in a prose translation by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob which ran for around four hours. The production moved to the Adelphi Theatre in London on 12 June, with a single performance at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford on 29 June. The duel scene from the play was filmed, with accompanying sound effects, for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, which was an attraction at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Mme Judith played Hamlet in 1867. The Era was a British theatrical trade journal, hence the reference to “at your side”.

Links: Copy at the British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Lotos-time in Japan

Source: Henry T. Finck, Lotos-time in Japan (New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1895), pp. 91-99

Production: Unnamed kabuki drama, Shintomi-za theatre, Tokyo, 1890s

Text: During the hot lotos months the theatres of Japan, as of most countries, are closed. On July 7 and 8, however, there happened to be, for the benefit of sufferers from the failure of the rice crops, a special charity performance by the Danjiuro Association, at the Shintomi Theatre, to which foreigners were able to purchase tickets at two dollars each, and which was on no account to be missed, for Danjiuro is the greatest of Japanese actors. It was expected that a great many foreigners would be present, and for their benefit the principal play to be given had been abbreviated so that it would last only seven hours. For the same reason the performance was begun at three p.m. instead of at six o’clock in the morning, which is the orthodox Japanese hour for beginning a play that usually lasts till six in the evening, — sometimes like our newspaper serials, “to be continued” next day.

It was raining when we rode up to the theatre, which we found to be somewhat larger than ordinary Japanese buildings, but without any pretensions to architectural beauty, which would be too expensive a luxury in a city where destructive fires are as frequent as in Tokyo. Being already provided with tickets, we were able to dodge the custom indulged in by well-to-do Japanese, of securing their seats in an adjoining tea house, instead of at the box office. These tea houses also provide lunches during the intermissions of the play, and in various ways absorb a large share of the general theatrical profits, to which fact the frequent collapse of managers has been attributed.

Kurumas by the score discharged their foreign or native occupants at the door, while hundreds of other natives came along on clogs, that lifted them stilt-like above the mud of the unpaved streets. Before entering they left these clogs near the door, where a pile of at least a hundred pairs had accumulated, which servants were rapidly carrying to a corner within. Leaving our umbrellas — but not our shoes — in charge of an attendant, we were ushered up a flight of stairs to a gallery facing the stage, and provided with chairs — luckily, for it would have been torture to sit or squat for hours on the mats, as the natives did in the side galleries and in the parquet. This parquet was divided into small square boxes, somewhat as we divide the floor of a church into pews; there were, of course, no benches or chairs, but everybody knelt on mats during the whole performance.

On a first visit to a Japanese theatre the audience is quite as interesting as the play, for the reason that the family groups in the parquet behave very much as they would if they were between the paper walls and screens of their own homes. No one is so rude as to disturb others by coming or going during the continuance of an act; but between the acts the scenes in the parquet constitute an entertaining side-show. Every family group is provided with a lunch, which has either been brought along, or is ordered from an adjoining tea house. Two gangways, right and left, called hanamichi or flower paths, on a level with the stage, run from it to the other end of the hall, and from these gangways (which are also used sometimes for special entrances of the actors or for processions) male attendants distributed tea, cakes, and other refreshments to the audience. A number of the spectators took their lunch unceremoniously on the stage, in front of the curtain. Almost every man and woman was smoking a thimble-sized pipe, and this indulgence was not limited to the intermissions, but continued most of the time, except when the tears over a tragic situation threatened to put out the pipe.

Although many Japanese plays are very immoral, according to our notions of propriety, boys and girls of all ages are taken to them by their parents of the lower classes; but in justice to the Japanese, it must be added that until recently, on account of the coarseness of the stage, the upper classes did not frequent the ordinary theatre, but only certain ancient and highly respectable, unintelligible, and tiresome performances — quasi-operatic — known as . The actors of these were honored in society; but ordinary actors were held in such contempt that, as Professor Chamberlain tells us, “when a census was taken, they were spoken of with the numerals used in counting animals. … Those to whom Japanese is familiar will,” he adds, “appreciate the terrible sting of the insult.” The strictness of Japanese etiquette on this point is illustrated by the account given, only a few decades ago, by Sir Rutherford Alcock of a visit to a theatre, which he made in Osaka, prefaced by this information: “In Yeddo I had never been able to gratify my desire to see this illustration of national manners, because no person of rank can be seen in such places; and it would have been a breach of all rules of propriety for a minister to visit a theatre.” Within recent years there has been a change and improvement, in consequence of which theatres and actors are no longer tabooed, which is a fortunate circumstance, for the reason that, to quote Chamberlain once more, the theatre is “the only remaining place where the life of Old Japan can be studied in these radical latter days.”

Apart from us foreigners seated on chairs in one gallery and our method of applause, which the Japanese have adopted in their public places, there was nothing in this theatre that could not have been seen in Old Japan. The dresses of the spectators may have been less sombre in former days; but this sombreness only served to enhance, by contrast, the beautiful colors and patterns of the accurate historic costumes worn by the actors. I cannot add “and actresses”; for even yet women are not considered to be fit to appear in a first-class play, and their parts are still taken by men — admirably taken by them, it must be confessed, with a grace truly feminine. Of the men’s costumes the oddest were the trailing trousers — those most extraordinary garments, which were part of the court costume until a few decades ago, and which amazed Sir Rutherford Alcock when he was received by the Shogun. He relates that facing him were fifty officials,

“all in gauze and silks. …. The most singular part of the whole costume, and that which, added to the headgear, gave an irresistibly comic air to the whole presentment, was the immeasurable prolongation of the silk trousers. These, instead of stopping short at the heels, are unconscionably lengthened and left to trail two or three feet behind them, so that their feet, as they advanced, seemed pushed into what should have been the knees of the garment.”

These trailing trousers played a conspicuous role in the drama we saw at the Shintomi. It has been suggested that, as such a garment must make its wearer clumsy and helpless, it was prescribed by the rulers to ward off the danger of assassination. But when I asked Mr. Shugio what he thought was the original object of this strange costume, he replied that it was to give the impression that the Shogun’s subjects were on their knees even when walking. The Japanese are indeed always on their knees, both for courtesy and comfort, except when walking or sleeping, and it would not be inappropriate to entitle a book on them, The Kneeling Nation. If one of them wrote a book on us, he would probably be tempted to entitle it, The Sitting Nation; for kneeling and walking are fast becoming lost arts among us.

Our performance consisted of a tragedy in four acts, a short comedy, and a dance in four acts, in which last the Misses Fukiko and Jitsuko, daughters of Danjiuro, took part — models of elegance in appearance and grace in gesture. An English program was distributed, containing the “dramatic (sic) personae” and a brief sketch of the tragic plot, the scene of which was placed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and which had a good deal to do with fighting and plotting and poisoned cakes. I have never seen better acting than that in the poisoning scene of this play. However much the Japanese may differ from us in customs and etiquette, in the expression of grief and joy their faces are like ours, and their actors have such wonderful mimetic powers that I found no difficulty whatever in following the plot, both in the tragedy and the comedy. Danjiuro might come to America and act in his own language, as Salvini has done; he is the Salvini of Japan, and would be a popular idol anywhere. One of our party had intended to return to Yokohama at six, but I heard him say that he liked the play (of which he could not understand a word) so well that he had decided to stay to the end — four hours more, including an hour’s intermission for supper.

The only disagreeable feature of the performance was the tone in which the actors spoke their parts. In ordinary conversation the Japanese speak in a low, musical voice and with natural inflections, but on the stage they have adopted the idiotic Chinese sing-song, squeaking falsetto, unearthly yells, and other extraordinary sounds which make a Chinese theatre seem like an improvised lunatic asylum. Almost everything that is really absurd in Japan comes from China, and prominent among the absurdities which ought to yield as soon as possible to Occidental influences is the stage falsetto. I was surprised by another peculiarity of the theatrical diction. My grammars had told me thatthe Japanese have practically no verbal or oratorical accent, every syllable and word having about the same emphasis. But it seemed to me that these actors positively swooped down on certain syllables and words, with an emphatic sforzando. I had also noticed previously that railway guards often accented one syllable much more strongly than the others; for instance, Kamákura.

In its scenic features the Japanese stage has gone far beyond the Chinese, which is still in the primitive condition of Shakspere’s [sic] time when a board with “This is a Forest,” or whatever else was to be suggested, took the place of real or painted trees, mountains, and so on. It would be strange, indeed, if, with their passionate love of nature, which makes them paint a maple branch or a Fuji on every fan, screen, and teapot, the Japanese had been willing to dispense with a scenic background on the stage. Episodes of street life, domestic interiors, dogs, horses, boats, moats, and castles, forest scenes — are all painted, or bodily introduced, with an art that is thoroughly realistic, and illusory in its perspective. What is more, to save time, or rather, to shorten intermissions, the Japanese were the first to invent a revolving stage, which makes it possible to set up one scene while another is in use, thus facilitating rapid changes. The curtain is sometimes raised, as in our theatres, sometimes dropped out of sight, or again pushed aside and closed, as at Bayreuth. The Shintomi has two ornamental curtains, — one Dutch, the other the gift of a Hawaiian monarch.

But again, just as the splendid acting is marred by the silly Chinese intonation, so the scenic illusion is destroyed by incongruities. One might forgive the gangways running from the stage across the parquet, and the occasional appearance of actors on them, especially when they are arrayed in their most gorgeous costumes, genuine works of art which have few counterparts at the present day, and which can be better seen this way than on the stage itself; but one fails to understand how the Japanese can tolerate the Chinese nuisance of allowing stage attendants to walk about among the actors, light up their faces with candles, prompt them from an open book, bring on or remove furniture, etc., in an obtrusive manner which destroys all illusion. What is amusing about this farce is the Oriental naiveté of supposing these attendants to be invisible, as is indicated by their wearing black garments and veils. An explanation of this absurdity may perhaps be found in the fact that until recently the Japanese theatre was frequented only by the lower classes, whose illusion is not easily marred.

Shall I attempt to describe the music which accompanied the tragedy? It must be admitted that the Japanese, as well as the Chinese, anticipated Wagner in the idea that a tragedy needs a musical accompaniment. It is their way of carrying out this idea that Western ears object to. I frankly confess that I found a certain charm in the barbarous music of the Chinese theatre in San Francisco after I had heard it four or five times. If this Japanese dramatic music gave me less pleasure, it may be owing to the fact that it was too deep to be understood at first hearing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt, — the more willingly as I did subsequently hear samisen and koto playing which was truly musical in its way. What was surprising in the play at the Shintomi Theatre was the variety of musical effects and groupings. To the left of the stage was a sort of menagerie cage with bars, the occupants of which kept up a monotonous strumming on their samisens in accompanying the dialogue. In a row on the back of the stage there were some flute players and more samisenists, whose performance sometimes assumed a well-defined rhythmic form. In a sort of proscenium box on our right, ten feet above the stage, there were two more samisen players, besides two doleful vocalists, looking, with their shaven crowns, like Buddhist priests. Their song consisted of an occasional melodic bud, with a great deal of garnishing that it would be impossible to indicate in our musical notation. But the prima donna of the occasion was the fellow with the big drum. He had his innings when a ghost came on the stage, and again, when the ghost made his exit. That drummer could give points to a thunderstorm in the Alps. It is said that the Japanese do not stand in real awe of ghosts, but look upon their possible appearance with a certain kindly interest; yet I fancy that when accompanied by such an unearthly drum solo, a ghost must be awful even to them.

If I have neglected to mention the name of the play or its writer, that is not my fault. No name or author was given on the playbill, it being the custom to ascribe new dramas to the manager who produces them. Many of the plays are the result of the co-operation of a writer with the actors, scene painters, and carpenters, and there is much improvisation during the performance. Such a thing, after all, is not unknown in our own theatres. I have been told that of the original “Black Crook” nothing whatever remains but the name; yet the author still draws his royalty.

Comments: Henry Theophilus Finck (1854-1926) was an American music critic. Ichikawa Danjūrō IX (1838-1903) was among the greatest of Japanese Kabuki theatre performers, ninth in a line of actors all bearing the sane name. According to the http://www.kabuki21.com site, the names of his two acting daughters were Ichikawa Suisen II and Ichikawa Kyokubai II. Women  would occasionally perform in Kabuki, but in minor roles only.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Boswell’s London Journal

Source: Frederick A. Pottle (ed.), Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 (Melbourne/London/Toronto: William Heinemann, 1950), pp. 256-257

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Nahum Tate), King Lear, Drury Lane, London, 12 May 1763

Text: Thursday 12 May. I went to Drury Lane and saw Mr. Garrick play King Lear. So very high is his reputation, even after playing so long, that the pit was full in ten minutes after four, although the play did not begin rill half an hour after six. I kept myself at a distance from all acquaintances, and got into a proper frame. Mr. Garrick gave me the most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears. The farce was Polly Honeycomb, at which I laughed a good deal. It gave me great consolation after my late fit of melancholy to find that I was again capable of receiving such high enjoyment.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. His London Journal was discovered in 1930 among a set of Boswell’s private papers. David Garrick‘s production of King Lear was first performed at Drury Lane on 19 November 1762, with Garrick as Lear. This was a version of the 1681 adaptation of the play by Nahum Tate, which cut characters such as the Fool and gave it a happy ending by preserving the lives of Lear, Kent and Gloucester, and marrying off Cordelia and Edgar. Polly Honeycombe (1760) was a one-act farce about the effects of novel-reading, written by George Colman the Elder.