Pater on Their Majesties’ Servants

Annals of the English Stage, from Thomas Betterton to Edmund Kean. By Dr. Doran, F.S.A. Edited and revised by Robert W. Lowe. John C. Nimmo.

THOSE who care for the history of the drama as a branch of literature, or for the history of that general development of human manners of which the stage has been always an element and a very lively measure or index, will be grateful to Mr. Lowe for this revised and charmingly illustrated edition of Dr. Doran’s pleasant old book. Three hundred years and more of a singularly varied and vivacious sort of history !?it was a bold thing to undertake; and Dr. Doran did his work well?did it with adequate “love.” These Annals of the English Stage, from Thomas Betterton to Edmund Kean, are full of the colours of life in their most emphatic and motley contrasts, as is natural in proportion as the stage itself concentrates and art)ficially intensifies the character and conditions of ordinary life. The long story of ” Their Majesties’ Servants,” treated thus, becomes from age to age an agreeable addition to those personal memoirs?Evelyn’s, and the like?which bring the influence and charm of a visible countenance to the dry tenour of ordinary history, and the critic’s work upon it naturally becomes, in the first place, a mere gathering of some of the flowers which lie so abundantly scattered here and there. A history of the English stage must necessarily be in part a history of one of the most delightful of subjects?old London, of which from time to time we catch extraordinary glimpses in Dr. Doran’s pages. From 1682 to 1695, as if the Restoration had not come, there was but one theatre in London. In Charles I.’s time Shoreditch was the dramatic quarter of London par excellence:? ” The popular taste was not only there directed towards the stage, but it was a district wherein many actors dwelt, and consequently died. The baptismal register of St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, contains Christian names which appear to have been chosen with reference to the heroines of Shakespeare; and the record of burials bears the name of many an old actor of mark whose remains now lie within the churchyard.” Earlier and later, the Surrey side of the Thames was the favourite locality for playhouses. The Globe was there, and the Beargarden, represented in Mr. Lowe’s luxurious new edition by delightful woodcuts. For this new edition adds to the original merits of the work the very substantial charm ot abundant illustrations, first-rate in subject and execution, and of three kinds?copper- plate likenesses of actors and other personages connected with theatrical history; a series of delicate, picturesque, highly detailed woodcuts of theatrical topography, chicfly the little old theatres; and, by way of tail-pieces to the chapters, a second series of woodcuts of a vigour and reality of information, within very limited compass, which make one think of Callot and the German ” little masters,” depicting Garrick and other famous actors in their favourite scenes. In the vignettes of the Bear-garden and the Swan Theatre, for instance, the artist has managed to throw over his minute plate a wonderful air of pleasantness, a light which, though very delicate, is very theatrical. The river and its tiny craft, the little gabled houses of the neighbourhood, with a garden or two dropped in, tell delightfully in the general effect. They are worthy to rank with Cruikshank’s illustrations of Jack Sheppard and The Tower of London, as mementoes of the little old smokeless London before the century of Johnson, though that, too, as Dr. Doran bears witness, knew what fogs could be. Then there is the Fortune Theatre near Cripplegate, and, most charming of all, two views?street and river fronts?the Duke’s Theatre, Dorset Garden, in Fleet Street, designed by Wren, decorated by Gibbons?graceful, naive, dainty, like the work of a very refined Palladio, working minutely, perhaps more delicately than at Vicenza, in the already crowded city on the Thames side. The portraits of actors and other theatrical celebrities range from Elizabeth, from the melodramatic costumes and faces of the contemporaries of Shakespeare, to the conventional costumes, the rotund expression, of the age of the Georges, masking a power of imaginative impersonation probably unknown in Shakespeare’s day. Edward Burbage, like Shakespeare’s own portrait, is, we venture to think, a trifle stolid. Field?Nathaniel Field, author of The Fatal Dowry, and an actor of reputation?in his singular costume, and with a face of perhaps not quite reassuring subtlety, might pass for the original of those Italian, or Italianized, voluptuaries in sin which pleased the fancy of Shakespeare’s age. Mixed up with many striking, thoroughly dramatic physiognomies, it must be confessed that some of these portraits scarcely help at all to explain the power of the players to whom they belonged. That, perhaps, is what we might naturally expect; the more, in proportion as the dramatic art is a matter in which many very subtle and indirect channels to men’s sympathy are called into play. Edward Alleyn, from the portrait preserved at his noble foundation at Dulwich, like a fine Holbein, figures, in blent strength and delicacy; as a genial, or perhaps jovial, soul, finding time for sentiment,?Prynne (included, we suppose, in this company, like the skull at the feast) as a likable if somewhat melancholic young man; while Garrick and his wife playing cards, after Zoffany, present a pair of just very nice youn; people. On the other hand, the tail – pieces, chicfly devoted to Garrick, prove what a wonderful natural variety there was in Garrick’s soul, and are well worth comparative study. Noticeable again, among the whole-plate portraits, is the thoroughly reassuring countenance of Steele, the singularly fine heads of John, Charles, and Fanny Kemble, while the certainly plain, pinched countenance of William Davenant reminds one of Charles Kean, and might well have lighted up, as did his, when the soul came into it, into power and charm, as the speaking eyes assure us even in its repose. The Renaissance inherited the old foolish prejudice of Roman times, when, although the writers of plays were the intimate friends of emperors, the actors were thought infamous. Still, on the whole, actors fared better in England than in Romanist France, where Moliere was buried with less ceremony than a favourite dog. Very different was the treatment of the eminent Mrs. Oldfield, who died in 1730:? ” Poor ‘ Narcissa’ after death (says Walpole) was attired in a Holland nightdress, with tucker and double ruffles of Brunswick lace, of which latter material she also wore a headdress, and a pair of new kid gloves. In this dress the deceased actress received such honour as actress never received before, nor has ever received since. The lady lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber. Had she been really a queen the public could not have thronged more eagerly to the spectacle; and after the lying in state there was a funeral of as much ceremony as has been observed at the obsequies of many a queen. There were anthems and prayers and a sermon; and Dr. Parker, who officiated, remarked, when all was over, to a few particular friends, and with some equivocation, as it seems to me, that he ‘buried her very willingly, and with much satisfaction.’ ” Yet even in England players had need of powerful protectors. ” Wit,” said Chesterfield, opposing an unjust licensing Act, ” Wit, my lords ! is the property of those who have it, and too often the only property they have to depend on.” Wit, indeed, with the other gifts that make good company, has largely gone with theatrical talents, too often little to the benefit of the gifted persons. Theatrical society, rather than the theatre, has made the lives of actors as we see them in these volumes, in many cases so tragic, even sordidly tragic. If misery and madness abound in stage life, so also does an indomitable cheerfulness, always at least a cheerful countenance. Dr. Doran’s book abounds, as might be expected, with admirable impromptus and the like; one might collect a large posy of them. Foote, seeing a sweep on a blood-horse, remarked, ” There goes Warburton on Shakespeare ! ” When he heard that the Rockingham Cabinet was fatigued to death and at its wits’ end, he exclaimed that it could not have been the length of the journey which had tired it. Again, when Lord Carmarthen, at a party, told him his handkerchief was hanging from his pocket, Foote replaced it with a ” Thank you, my lord; you know the company better than I.” Jevon, a century earlier, was in the habit of taking great liberties with authors and audience. He made Settle half mad and the house ecstatic when having, as Lycurgus, Prince of China, to “fell or his sword,” he placed it flat on the stage, and, falling over it, “died,” according to the direction of the acting copy. Quaint enough, but certainly no instance of anybody’s wit, is the account of how a French translation of a play of Vanbrugh? not architect of Blenheim only, but accomplished in many other ways?appeared at the Odeon, in 1862, with all fitting raptures, as a posthumous work of Voltaire recently discovered. The Voltairean wit was found as ” delightful in this as in the last century.” Of Shakespeare on the stage Dr. Doran has a hundred curious things to note:?that Richard the Third, for instance, who has retained a so unflattering possession of the stage, was its ” first practically useful patron.” We see Queen Elizabeth full of misgiving at a difficult time at the popularity of Richard the Second:?”The deposition and death of King Richard the Second.” ” Tongues whisper to the Queen that this play is part of a great plot to teach her subjects how to murder kings.” It is perhaps not generally known that Charles Shakespeare, William’s brother, survived till the Restoration. Oldys says, à propos of the restoration of the stage at that time ” The actors were greedily inquisitive into every little circumstance, more especially in Shakespeare’s dramatic character, which his brother could relate of him. But he, it seems, was so stricken in years, and possibly his memory so weakened by infirmities, that he could give them but little light into their inquiries; and all that could be recollected from him of his brother Will in that station was the faint, general, and almost lost ideas he had of having once seen him act a part in one of his own comedies, wherein being present to personate a decrepit old man, he wore a long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping and unable to walk, that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some company who were eating, and one of them sang a song.” This description applies to old Adam in As You Like It. Many are the evidences that Shakespeare’s reputation had from time to time a struggle to maintain itself. James Howard, in Pepys’s day? ” Belonged to the faction which affected to believe that there was no popular love for Shakespeare, to render whom palatable he arranged Romeo and Juliet for the stage, with a double dènouement?one serious, the other hilarious. If your heart were too sensitive to bear the deaths of the loving pair, you had only to go on the succeeding afternoon to see them wedded, and set upon the way of a well-assured domestic felicity.” In 1678 Rymer asserted (was it undesignedly a true testimony to the acting of his time?) that Shakespeare had depicted Brutus and Cassius as “Jack Puddins.” Here, as in many another detail, we are reminded, of course, of the difference between our own and past times in mimic as in real life. For Prynne one of the great horrors of the stage was the introduction of actresses from France by Henrietta Maria, to take the place of young male actors of whom Dr. Doran has some inter esting notices. Who the lady was who first trod the stage as a professional actress is not known, but her part was Desdemona. And yet it was long after that? ” Edward Kynaston died (in 1712). He lies buried in the churchyard of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. If not the greatest actor of his day, Kynaston was the greatest of the ‘boy- actresses.’ So exalted was his reputation ‘that,’ says Downes, ‘it has since been disputable among the judicious, whether any woman that succeeded him so sensibly touched the audience as he.'” In Charles II.’s time it was a custom to return the price of admission to all persons who left the theatre before the close of the first act. Consequently, many shabby persons were wont to force their way in without paying, on the plea that they did not intend to remain beyond the time limited. Hence much noisy contention, to the great discomfort even of Royalty. The brawling, drinking habits of the time were even more discomforting. An angry word, passed one April evening of 1682 between the son of Sir Edward Dering and a hot – blooded young Welshman, led to recrimination and sworddrawing. The two young fellows not having elbow-room in the pit, clambered on to the stage, and fought there, to the greater comfort of the audience, and with a more excited fury on the part of the combatants. The mingling of the public with the players was a practice which so annoyed the haughty French actor, Baron, that to suggest to the audience the absurdity of it, he would turn his back on them for a whole act, and play to the audience on the stage. Sometimes the noise was so loud that an actor’s voice would scarcely be heard. It was about 1710 that the word encore was introduced at the operatic performances in the Haymarket, and very much objected to by plain- going Englishmen. It was also the custom of some who desired the repetition of a song to cry Altra volta ! Altra volta ! Even indirectly the history of the stage illustrates life, and affords many unexpected lights on historical characters. Oliver Cromwell, though he despised the stage, could condescend to laugh at, and with, men of less dignity than actors. Buffoonery was not entirely expelled from his otherwise grave court. Oxford and Drury Lane itself dispute the dignity of giving birth to Nell Gwynne with Hereford, where a mean house is still pointed out as the first home of this mother of a line of dukes, whose greatgrandson was to occupy the neighbouring palace as Bishop of Hereford for forty years. At her burial in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, Archbishop Tenison preached the sermon. When this was subsequently made the ground of exposing him to the reproof of Queen Mary, she remarked that the good doctor, no doubt, had said nothing but what the facts authorized. ” Who should act genteel comedy perfectly,” asks Walpole, ” but people of fashion, that have sense ?” And, in truth, the seventeenth century gave many ladies to the stage, Mrs. Barry being the most famous of them. Like many eminent actors, she was famous for the way in which she would utter one single expression in a play. Dr. Doran gives some curious instances from later actors. ” What mean my grieving subjects ? ” uttered in the character of Queen Elizabeth, was invested by her with such emphatic grace and dignity as to call up murmurs of approbation which swelled into thunders of applause. Her noble head is here engraved after Kneller, like the head of a magnificent visionary man. Should we really care for the greatest actors of the past could we have them before us ? Should we find them too different from our accent of thought, of feeling, of speech, in a thousand minute particulars which are of the essence of all three ? Dr. Doran’s long and interesting records of the triumphs of Garrick, and other less familiar, but in their day hardly less astonishing, players, do not relieve one of the doubt. Garrick himself, as sometimes happens with people who have been the subject of much anecdote and other conversation, here as elsewhere, bears no very distinct figure. One hardly sees the wood for the trees. On the other hand, the account of Betterton, ” perhaps the greatest of English actors,” is delightfully fresh. That intimate friend of Dryden, Tillotson, Pope, who executed a copy of the actor’s portrait by Kneller which is still extant, was worthy of their friendship; his career brings out the best elements in stage life. The stage in these volumes presents itself indeed not merely as a mirror of life, but as an illustration of the utmost intensity of life, in the fortunes and characters of the players. Ups and downs, generosity, dark fates, the most delicate goodness, have nowhere been more prominent than in the private existence of those devoted to the public mimicry of-men and women. Contac with the stage, almost throughout its history, presents itself as a kind of touchstone, to bring out the bizarrerie, the theatrical tricks and contrasts, of the actual world.

Originally published in the Guardian — March 28, 1888