William Abbott

The Distressed Mother

Source: William Hazlitt, ‘The Distressed Mother’, Examiner, 22 September 1816 pp. 9-10, reproduced in A View of the English Stage, or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (London: Robert Stodart, 1818), pp. 108-110

Production: Ambrosse Philips, The Distrest Mother, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 16 or 20 September 1816

Text: A Mr. Macready appeared at Covent Garden Theatre on Monday and Friday, in the character of Orestes in the Distressed Mother, a bad play for the display of his powers, in which, however, he succeeded in making a decidedly favourable impression upon the audience. His voice is powerful in the highest degree, and at the same time possesses great harmony and modulation. His face is not equally calculated for the stage. He declaims better than anybody we have lately heard. He is accused of being violent, and of wanting pathos. Neither of these objections is true. His manner of delivering the first speeches in this play was admirable, and the want of increasing interest afterwards was the fault of the author rather than the actor. The fine suppressed tone in which he assented to Pyrrhus’s command to convey the message to Hermione was a test of his variety of power, and brought down repeated acclamations from the house. We do not lay much stress on his mad scene, though that was very good in its kind, for mad scenes do not occur very often, and, when they do, had in general better be omitted. We have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Mr. Macready is by far the best tragic actor that has come out in our remembrance, with the exception of Mr. Kean. We, however, heartily wish him well out of this character of Orestes. It is a kind of forlorn hope in tragedy. There is nothing to be made of it on the English stage beyond experiment. It is a trial, not a triumph. These French plays puzzle an English audience exceedingly. They cannot attend to the actor, for the difficulty they have in understanding the author. We think it wrong in any actor of great merit (which we hold Mr. Macready to be) to come out in an ambiguous character, to salve his reputation. An actor is like a man who throws himself from the top of a steeple by a rope. He should choose the highest steeple he can find, that, if he does not succeed in coming safe to the ground, he may break his neck at once, and so put himself and the spectators out of farther pain.

Ambrose Phillips’s Distressed Mother is a very good translation from Racine’s Andromache. It is an alternation of topics, of pros and cons, on the casuistry of domestic and state affairs, and produced a great effect of ennui on the audience. When you hear one of the speeches in these rhetorical tragedies, you know as well what will be the answer to it, as when you see the tide coming up the river – you know that it will return again. The other actors filled their parts with successful mediocrity.

We highly disapprove of the dresses worn on this occasion, and supposed to be the exact Greek costume. We do not know that the Greek heroes were dressed like women, or wore their long hair straight down their backs. Or even supposing that they did, this is not generally known or understood by the audience; and though the preservation of the ancient costume is a good thing, it is of more importance not to shock our present prejudices. The managers of Covent Garden are not the Society of Antiquaries. The attention to costume is only necessary to preserve probability; in the present instance, it could only violate it, because there is nothing to lead the public opinion to expect such an exhibition. We know how the Turks are dressed, from seeing them in the streets; we know the costume of the Greek statues, from seeing casts in the shop windows; we know that savages go naked, from reading voyages and travels; but we do not know that the Grecian chiefs at the Siege of Troy were dressed as Mr. Charles Kemble, Mr. Abbott, and Mr. Macready were the other evening in the Distressed Mother. It is a discovery of the managers, and they should have kept their secret to themselves. The epithet in Homer, applied to the Grecian warriors, kάρη kομόωντες, is not any proof. It signifies, not long-haired, but literally bushy-headed, which would come nearer to the common Brutus head than this long dangling slip of hair. The oldest and most authentic models we have are the Elgin Marbles, and it is certain the Theseus is a crop. One would think this standard might satisfy the Committee of Managers in point of classical antiquity. But no such thing. They are much deeper in Greek costume and the history of the fabulous ages, than those old-fashioned fellows, the Sculptors who lived in the time of Pericles. But we have said quite enough on this point.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. William Macready (1793-1873) made his debut on the London stage on 16 September 1816 at Covent Garden in Ambrose PhilipsThe Distrest Mother, a translation of Jean Racine‘s Andromaque. Macready played Orestes, alongside Charles Kemble and William Abbot.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Covent-Garden Theatre

Source: Anon., ‘Covent-Garden Theatre’, The Morning Post, 6 October 1829, p. 3

Production: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Covent Garden, London, 5 October 1829

Text: The name of KEMBLE was exercised with magic-like effect at this Theatre last night. Plunged into difficulties, almost overwhelming, Mr. CHARLES KEMBLE exerted his best strength and influence: his wife returned to the stage, his daughter made her debut, and a brilliant and overflowing audience was the consequence. This was precisely as every friend of the Drama must have wished. the name of a family which has for half a century contributed so largely, and with so much distinction and honour, to the most rational  and intellectual of our amusements, ought not to be used in vain, or to be heard without cheering and liberal encouragement. On this occasion it met with enthusiastic support, and those who anticipated a display of hereditary genius were happily confirmed in their kindly hopes. That the difficulties of the Theatre have been most alarming there can be no question; but however desperate they may have been in their character, or however distressing to the Managers, we can hardly help rejoicing in their occurrence, since thy have been the immediate cause of giving to the stage another KEMBLE, and one too who promises to enhance rather than to depreciate the unrivalled reputation of her family. With the debut of Miss FANNY KEMBLE too, we are inclined to date the disappearance of the distresses of the Theatre, and therefore we shall make no further mention of them, but content ourselves with expressing a hope that the young Lady’s introduction to the stage will only be one of many acts of good judgment on the part of the Manager.

Before the commencement of the play, “God save the King” was sung by the Company, which mustered unusually strong, the different solos being given by Miss HUGHES, Mr. WOOD (who acquitted himself remarkably well), and Mr. HORNE, who appears to have returned to this Theatre. The national song was warmly encored, and the Theatre looked extremely handsome while it was singing: the whole of the audience were standing, the private boxes were full, and the dress and first circle of boxes were adorned by a great number of Ladies. As for the rest of the House, it was crowded to excess. The play was Romeo and Juliet, Miss KEMBLE of course being Juliet. In stature she is like her mother, being rather under than over the middle size; but she may not yet have completed her growth, being, as we are informed, and as she really appears, not more than eighteen. Her form, however, is rich in beauties. The contour of her throat, neck, and head, reminded us forcibly of Mrs. SIDDONS; and her arms have that roundness and capability of majestic action in which her aunt was so entirely unrivalled, In her countenance Miss KEMBLE partakes more of the beauties of Mrs. SIDDONS, and the expression of JOHN KEMBLE, than she does of the features of her father and mother. Her brow is like that of all the KEMBLES – lofty and full of deep expression; her eye is finely placed, dark and powerful; her nose is sufficiently prominent to give a good profile, and to ad to the effect of the other features; and her mouth has much of the character of that of her great predecessor, Mrs. SIDDONS, being capable of expressing tenderness, scorn, and triumph, in all their depth, bitterness, and lofty joy. The general character of her face is dignity; it is plainly and beautifully traced, although she has hardly yet attained the state of womanhood. Her voice is equal to every demand that even Tragedy can make. It is powerful, rich, and has great variety. It has none of the poverty of her uncle’s in particular passages, and little of the monotony of her aunt’s in level speaking. It often resembles her mother’s in sweetness, and is capable of declamation without any of the evidently acquired facility of her father’s. In the peculiar expression, however, for which each of her distinguished relatives have been celebrated, they are likely still to stand unrivalled. Without challenging the triumphant declamation and the agonizing bursts of Mrs. SIDDONS, Miss KEMBLE has an ample field before her, wherein she may gather

“Golden opinions of all sorts of men.”

On her entrance Miss KEMBLE was most enthusiastically welcomed: the pit rose in a body, and the cheers from the boxes were loud and long continued. She appeared to be greatly embarrassed, and did not recover her self-possession during her first scene. In her next scene, the masquerade, she made a certainty of success; the only difficulty was to predict the degree she would attain. There was in the delivery of the passage –

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”

a sensibility and a depth of feeling which gave an unquestionable indication of the possession of fine powers. Her exit too was marked by a melancholy but soul-searching passion, which admirably prepared for the succeeding scene. It was in this scene that her conception and her capabilities were at once developed. The garden scene is in itself a thing of beauties, and many of the passages received ample justice at her hands. the soliloquies appeared to flow from a heart wrapped up in a new and all-absorbing passion, and which, during the absence of the object it idolised, existed but in thinking of it. Nor did she deliver the passages addressed to Romeo with less felicity. They were full of fervour, and the passion was unrestrained, but it was pure, and natural from its purity.

“But farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me?”

was most beautifully given. The full effect was produced without violence of any description. The heart seemed to prompt the tongue, and nature to lend every grace to give the interrogatory force. Again, in the latter part of the scene, she characterised her love with admirable emphasis and expression. Her delivery was fully equal to the comprehensive words which SHAKESPEARE has assigned to Juliet :-

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have; for both are infinite.”

In her tone and manner there was something which bespoke the capability of Juliet, though yet a girl, undertaking the dangerous and appalling course she subsequently pursues. In her next scene, the scene in which the Nurse brings tidings from Romeo, there was a great deal of sweetness, but nothing calling for particular remark, unless perhaps we except the lines –

“Had she affections, and warm youthful blood,
She’d be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.”

In delivering these her action was peculiarly appropriate and original. In the next scene, however, she made “a giant’s step” in reputation. She rushed into the depths of tragedy, and although there was a great poverty or rather total want of action while she delivered the lines –

O, break, my heart! poor bankrupt, break at once!
To prison, eyes, ne’er look on liberty!
Vile earth, to earth resign; end, motion, here;
And thou and Romeo press one heavy bier!

the defect was more than compensated for by the agonizing burst with which she exclaimed –

“Banished! is Romeo banished?”

It was entirely in the manner of SIDDONS, as was the passage commencing-

“Blistered be thy tongue” &c.

In the next scene she achieved another triumph, and perhaps the greatest of the evening. After having in vain implored her parents to postpone her marriage with Paris, Juliet has recourse to the Nurse for advice:-

JULIET: O. Nurse, how shall this be prevented?
NURSE: – Faith, here it is,
Romeo is banished: all the world to nothing
That he dares ne’er come back to challenge you;
Or, if he do, it needs must be by stealth;
Then, since the case so stands, I think it best
You married with the Count.
JULIET. Speak’st thou from they heart?
NURSE. From my soul, too;
Or else beshrew them both.
JULIET. Amen!
NURSE. What? what?
JULIET. Well, thou has comforted me marvellous much.

The effect of these passages was splendid in the extreme. the dignity of the wife was suddenly called into action, and it was commanding as it was pure and lovely in its nature. The Theatre rang with applauses. The arduous soliloquy in the next scene she finished by one of the most perfect and beautiful attitudes we have seen for a long time. The last scene was unfortunately the least successful of the whole; she was badly dressed and badly painted, and the Romeo on the night was not of the slightest assistance to her. But Miss KEMBLE had been the admiration of the audience long before the close of the play; and looking at her performance, we should most decidedly give it the preference to every debut made since that of Miss O’NEILL. To say that it was destitute of fault would be as absurd as to say that it not did display a conception of the highest order, and much execution of a similar character. Having said thus much, we shall be content to await her next performance without more remark, when me may find time and opportunity to return to the subject.

Mr. C. KEMBLE sustained the part of Mercutio for the first time. On his entrance the applause was enthusiastic, and he acknowledged the compliment with great grace and feeling. Of his acting we have only space sufficient to say that his readings were perfect, if he was  not quite so airy as LEWIS, or quite so humorous as ELLISTON was wont to be. His death was managed very beautifully, and with much originality. The kindness with which he took leave of Romeo was excellently conceived and executed. As the peculiarity of the circumstances has induced him to resign Romeo, we are happy to see him in possession of Mercutio; on no other occasion, however, could we consent to his quitting the lover. Of Mr. ABBOTT we need say but little. He is precisely the same as he was before he went to France, and therefore a very moderate Romeo. He is destitute of tenderness. Mrs C. KEMBLE trod the stage and acted with so much excellent sense and spirit as Lady Capulet, that we could  hardly believe she had ever been absent from it, and heartily wished for her permanent return to it. Mrs. DAVENPORT as the Nurse was a delightful as ever. It was a piece of acting in itself worth a journey to witness. She was most cordially received. The other parts were sustained as usual; and at the fall of the curtain the applause was unanimous and most hearty. Mr. KEMBLE came forward and addressed the audience in the following words:- “Ladies and Gentlemen, from the kind indulgence with which you have been pleased to receive the first efforts of my daughter on any stage, I am induced to announce this tragedy for repetition on Wednesday, Friday, and Monday next.”

This announcement was received with great approbation, and the entertainments concluded with The Miller and his Men.

Comments: The review is of a production of William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet, at Covent Garden, London, 5 October 1829. Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) was the daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and niece of his sister, the actress Sarah Siddons. The financial fortunes of the ailing Covent Garden (in which Charles Kemble was a shareholder) were greatly improved following the great success of Fanny Kemble in Romeo and Juliet, and the production was a further success touring North America. The remaining lead performers named in this review were Theresa Kemble (Mrs Charles Kemble), William  Abbott, and Mrs Davenport (Fanny Vining), while other actors mentioned are Eliza O’Neill, Robert Elliston and William Lewis. The Miller and his Men was a two-act romantic melodrama by Isaac Pocock.

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