Page images


A concise view of the progress of the stage, towards its present state; illustrated with many curious anecdotes.

In order to form a more perfect judgment of Quin's character as an actor it will be necessary to consider the state of the stage at that period, and take a short retrospect of its various advances to the perfection which it has now obtained.

It is somewhat extraordinary, and deserving of observation, though I have not met with any writer that has made the remark, that the legal restoration of Charles II. and the restoration of the stage were events of the same period. This prince granted two patents for the forming of two distinct companies of comedians. That which was under the direction of Mr. Killegrew had the title of the King's Servants; and the other, under the management of Sir William Davenant, was styled the Duke's company. Both these companies performed at the same time, and met with great success, having the sanction and protection of the nobility, who now considered theatrical representations in their true light, as the most moral and rational amusement that can engage the vacant hours of study or business. Propriety of action and elegance of expression had never till now been duly attended to upon the English stage, and the present representations were moreover attended with two very critical advantages. The first was, the theatres immediately opening after so long a suspension of acting, during the civil war and the anarchy that succeeded it; the second advantage was, that no woman had ever before represented any part. The female characters had heretofore been performed by the most effeminate actors in the company. The heightening that actresses must have at first given to theatrical representations, when compared to the hetero


* The managers could not, however, immediately supply all the female characters with actresses, as we find by an anecdote that is handed down to us by different theatrical historians, of King Charles coming a little before his usual time to a tragedy, and finding the actors not ready to begin, the King was impatient, and sent to know the meaning of it; when the master of the company, coming up to the box, judging that the best excuse for the delay would be the true one, plainly told the King that the Queen was not shaved yet. At which the King laughed heartily, till the Queen could make her appearance fresh-trimmed.

geneous appearance that the most smooth-faced comedian could have made in petticoats, is almost inconceivable. At the time that Shakespeare wrote, he was not unapprised to what a disadvantage his female characters must appear under this circumstance; and to this consideration we may reasonably attribute the scarcity with which they are strewed in most of his pieces.

The King's Servants acted then, as they do now, at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; and the Duke's Company at the Duke's Theatre, in Dorset Gardens. They both continued to meet with success for several years, but their managers were not yet arrived at sufficient skill in their departments; they were still ignorant how to afford the town an agreeable and constant variety; they had hitherto got up but very few stock plays, and these, by their frequent exhibition, at length satiated their audiences. Killegrew, however, who was the most skilful manager of the two, still found some resource in the superiority of his actors and the variety of their abilities; and on the other hand, Davenant, in order to balance their success, first added scenery and music to action, and introduced a theatrical medley since known by the name of Dramatic Operas. The court soon after interfered in the opposite manager's disputes, and a negociation was set on foot, which terminated in the union of their patents in the year 1864. Nevertheless, by various incidental causes, the stage languished, and was just expiring when it was again revived by King William's licence in 1695, at which period the great Betterton made his appearance, and gave the world the greatest idea they ever had of just acting upon the English stage; for we are told, and we must take the tradition of our forefathers upon these heads, that Betterton was an actor, as Shakespeare was an author, both without competitors, formed for the mntual assistance and illustration of each others' genius; that when he spoke you might see the muse of Shakespeare in her triumph, with all her beauties in her best array, rising into real life and charming her beholders.*

It would be impertinent in a modern to pretend to say

* "The most that a Vandyke can arrive at, is to make his portraits of great persons seem to think; a Shakespeare goes farther yet, and tells you what this picture thought; a Betterton steps beyond them both, and calls them from the grave, to breathe and be themselves again in feature, speech and motion. When the skilful actor shews you all these powers at once united, and gratifies at once your eye, your ear, and your under. standing, to conceive the pleasures arising from such harmony you must have been present at it—'tis not to be told you.”—Vide the Apology for the Life of C. Cibber, p. 88.

Betterton did not possess all those graces and qualities which formed the complete actor; but with due deference to our predecessors there seems such a partiality in men of the last age for everything that was then prevalent, that I cannot help suspecting either their judgment or their veracity upon many occasions, and in nothing more than with regard to actors. Cibber, in his Apology, says, "Had Sandford lived in Shakespeare's time, I am confident his judgment must have chose him above all other actors, to have played his Richard the Third ;" and I shall only add, if Cibber, when he wrote his Apology, had seen Garrick in that part, he certainly would have altered his opinion.

This, perhaps, may be considered only as mere ipse dixit, pro and con; and it may be urged that my partiality in favour of Garrick is as strong as Cibber's might be for Betterton; but the point is surely different, when I oppose Garrick to Sandford, who, even at that time of day, was considered but as a third-rate actor, the Spagnoles of the theatre, the stage-villain, and could not be put in competition with many of our present subalterns.

But to resume: Soon after the death of Queen Mary, consort to William the Third, the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which was formed out of a tennis court, was by patent opened; when Mr. Congreve's comedy of Love for Love had such an extraordinary run that scarce any other play was performed till the end of the season. Mr. Congreve was then in such high esteem as an author, that besides his profits from the play, the managers offered him a whole share with them, which he accepted; in consideration of which he obliged himself to give them one new play every year. Dryden, in King Charles's time, had the same share with the King's Company, but he bound himself to give them two plays every season. This, it may be imagined, he could not long support; and it is reasonable to think he would have served them better with one a year not so hastily written. Mr. Congreve's bad state of health prevented his producing any more than one piece in the next three years, when the Mourning Bride made its appearance. The very first speech secured him success, and indeed, if there had not been another good line in it, what judicious critic could have condemned the production that contained these lines, especially when they were uttered by Mrs. Bracegirdle in the character of Almeria ?

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I've read that things inanimate have mov'd,
And as with living souls have been inform❜d,
By magic numbers and persuasive sound.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

What, then, am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than trees or flint! O force of constant woe!
'Tis not in harmony to calm my griefs.

The next piece Mr. Congreve produced, and which was performed at the same theatre, was the comedy of The Way of the World, which certainly contains more sterling wit than any comedy that has been produced since. It is true, those critics who envy Congreve for his genius, aver that it is his principal defect to have too much wit, for that his very fools say good things, and all his dialogue is repartee: it is a thousand pities they could not imitate his faults; they would greatly tend to perfect their productions. Congreve's wit, methinks, might escape uncensured without it were satiriz'd with at least as much pleasantry as the thing complained of. If, indeed, the critics had confined themselves to some of his luscious scenes, they would have had a much fairer chance of success; but even his faults upon this score admit of some apology—the vitiated taste of the town, grounded upon the example of preceding writers. These immoralities of the stage had by avowed indulgence been creeping into it ever since the time of King Charles; nothing that was loose could be then too low for it: the London Cuckolds, the most rank play that ever succeeded, was then in the highest court favour; nor was it discountenanced till, to the honour of Mr. Garrick, he had the courage to abolish its representation on the anniversary of Lord Mayor's Day; when the managers of the other house, whose eyes were at length opened to the propriety of the measure, followed his example.

Whilst our authors were so licentious, the ladies were observed to be decently afraid of venturing bare-faced to a new comedy, till they were assured that they might do it without the risk of insult to their modesty; or, if their curiosity were too strong for their patience, they took care at least to save appearances, and seldom came upon the first days of acting but in mask (then daily worn, and admitted in the pit, side-boxes and gallery), which custom, however, had so many ill consequences that it has been abolished these many years. In this almost general corruption, Dryden, whose plays were famed more for their wit than their chastity, led the way, which he fairly confesses, and endeavours to excuse, in his prologue to The Pilgrim, revived for his Benefit in his declining age and fortune, at the beginning of this century. I shall select a few lines from this prologue to support my assertion:

Perhaps the parson stretch'd a point too far,
When with our theatres he waged a war.

He tells you that this very moral age
Received the first infection from the stage.
But sure a banished court, with lewdness fraught,
The seeds of open vice returning brought.
These lodg'd (as vice by great example thrives)
It first debauched their daughters and their wives.
London, a fruitful soil, yet never bore
So plentiful a crop of horns before.

The poets, who must live by courts or starve,
Were proud so good a government to serve,
And, mix'd with buffoons and with pimps profane,
Tainted the stage for some small scrap of gain.
For they, like harlots under bawds profest,
Took all the ungodly pains and got the least.
Thus did the thriving malady prevail,

The court its head, the poets but the tail;
The sin was of our native growth, 'tis true,
The scandal of the sin was wholly new.
Misses there were, but modesty concealed;
Whitehall the naked Venus first revealed;
Where, standing, as at Cyprus, in her shrine,
The strumpet was ador'd with rites divine.

Such then was the state of the stage in the beginning of this century; let us now see what farther advances it made towards decency and perfection in the course of seventeen years. As it was as yet under no particular restriction, many indecent and even libellous pieces were ushered forth, to the scandal of good manners and the insult of all civil liberty; but on the other hand, to make some amends for this, Cato, after being nine years sequestered in Mr. Addison's closet, made its appearance upon the public stage at the time that Booth was in his greatest perfection. The success this piece met with, as well in London as at Oxford, is beyond all comprehension, and could be surpassed by nothing but so uncommon a coalition of sentiments in the Whigs and Tories (at a time when party ran very high) who seemed emulous to surpass each other, not only in the applause they bestowed upon it, but even in the presents they made to the capital performers in it.

The Careless Husband, written by Colley Cibber, was represented at Drury Lane some time before. This comedy for the purity of the sentiment, and the justness of the characters, may be ranked foremost in the laureate's productions. He nothwithstanding, tells us that Mrs. Oldfield had a great share in its success, not only from the uncommon excellence of her action, but even from her personal manner of conversing, for, he says, there are many sentiments in the character of lady Betty Modish, that were almost originally her own, or only dressed with a little more care than when they negligently fell from her lively humour.

« PreviousContinue »