A BOOK OF THE PLAY
Studies and Illustrations of Histrionic Story, Life, and Character.
"ART IN ENGLAND," "HOBSON'S CHOICE," "PAUL FOSTER'S DAUGHTER," "BANNS OF MARRIAGE" ETC. ETC.
THIRD AND REVISED EDITION.
In One Volume
SAMPSON LOW, MARSTON, SEARLE, & RIVINGTON, CROWN BUILDINGS, FLEET STREET.
CHARLES DICKENS AND EVANS, CRYSTAL PALACE PRESS.
PREFACE TO THE THIRD EDITION.
This book, as I explained in the preface to its first edition, published in 1876, is designed to serve and entertain those interested in the transactions of the Theatre. I have not pretended to set forth anew a formal and complete History of the Stage; it has rather been my object to traverse by-paths connected with the subject—to collect and record certain details and curiosities of histrionic life and character, past and present, which have escaped or seemed unworthy the notice of more ambitious and absolute chroniclers. At most I would have these pages considered as but portions of the story of the British Theatre whispered from the side-wings.
Necessarily, the work is derived from many sources, owes much to previous labours, is the result of considerable searching here and there, collation, and selection. I have endeavoured to make acknowledgment, as opportunity occurred, of the authorities I stand indebted to, for this fact or that story. I desire, however, to make express mention of the frequent aid I have received from Mr. J. Payne Collier's admirable "History of English Dramatic Poetry" (1831), containing Annals of the Stage to the Restoration. Mr. Collier, having enjoyed access to many public and private collections of the greatest value, has much enriched the store of information concerning our Dramatic Literature amassed by Malone, Stevens, Reed, and Chalmers. Referring to numberless published and unpublished papers, to sources both familiar and rare, Mr. Collier has been enabled, moreover, to increase in an important degree our knowledge of the Elizabethan Theatre, its manners and customs, ways and means. I feel that I owe to his archaeological studies many apt quotations and illustrative passages I could scarcely have supplied from my own unassisted resources.
Some additions to the text I have deemed expedient. The few errors—they were very few and unimportant—discovered in the first edition I have corrected in the present publication; certain redundancies I have suppressed; here and there I have ventured upon condensation, and generally I have endeavoured to bring my statements into harmony with the condition of the stage at the present moment. Substantially, however, the "Book of the Play" remains what it was at the date of its original issue, when it was received by the reading public with a kindness and cordiality I am not likely to forget.
69, GLOUCESTER CRESCENT, REGENT'S PARK, N.W.
CHAPTER I. PLAYGOERS
CHAPTER II. THE MASTER OF THE REVELS
CHAPTER III. THE LICENSER OF PLAYHOUSES
CHAPTER IV. THE EXAMINER OF PLAYS
CHAPTER V. A BILL OF THE PLAY
CHAPTER VI. STROLLING PLAYERS
CHAPTER VII. "PAY HERE"
CHAPTER VIII. IN THE PIT
CHAPTER IX. THE FOOTMEN'S GALLERY
CHAPTER X. FOOT-LIGHTS
CHAPTER XI. "COME, THE RECORDERS!"
CHAPTER XII. PROLOGUES
CHAPTER XIII. THE ART OF "MAKING-UP"
CHAPTER XIV. PAINT AND CANVAS
CHAPTER XV. THE TIRING-ROOM
CHAPTER XVI. "HER FIRST APPEARANCE"
CHAPTER XVII. STAGE WHISPERS
CHAPTER XVIII. STAGE GHOSTS
CHAPTER XIX. THE BOOK OF THE PLAY
CHAPTER XX. "HALF-PRICE AT NINE O'CLOCK"
CHAPTER XXI. THE DRAMA UNDER DIFFICULTIES
CHAPTER XXII. STAGE BANQUETS
CHAPTER XXIII. STAGE WIGS
CHAPTER XXIV. "ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS"
CHAPTER XXV. STAGE STORMS
CHAPTER XXVI. "DOUBLES"
CHAPTER XXVII. BENEFITS
CHAPTER XXVIII. THUNDERS OF APPLAUSE
CHAPTER XXIX. REAL HORSES
CHAPTER XXX. THE "SUPER"
CHAPTER XXXI. "GAG"
CHAPTER XXXII. BALLETS AND BALLET-DANCERS
CHAPTER XXXIII. CORRECT COSTUMES
CHAPTER XXXIV. HARLEQUIN AND CO.
CHAPTER XXXV. "GOOSE"
CHAPTER XXXVI. EPILOGUES
A BOOK OF THE PLAY.
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The man who, having witnessed and enjoyed the earliest performance of Thespis and his company, followed the travelling theatre of that primeval actor and manager, and attended a second and a third histrionic exhibition, has good claim to be accounted the first playgoer. For recurrence is involved in playgoing, until something of a habit is constituted. And usually, we may note, the playgoer is youthful. An old playgoer is almost a contradiction in terms. He is merely a young playgoer who has grown old. He talks of the plays and players of his youth, but he does not, in truth, visit the theatre much in his age; and invariably he condemns the present, and applauds the past. Things have much degenerated and decayed, he finds; himself among them, but of that fact he is not fully conscious. There are no such actors now as once there were, nor such actresses. The drama has declined into a state almost past praying for. This is, of course, a very old story. "Palmy days" have always been yesterdays. Our imaginary friend, mentioned above, who was present at the earliest of stage exhibitions, probably deemed the second and third to be less excellent than the first; at any rate, he assuredly informed his friends and neighbours, who had been absent from that performance, that they had missed very much indeed, and had by no means seen Thespis at his best. Even nowadays, middle-aged playgoers, old enough to remember the late Mr. Macready, are trumped, as it were, by older playgoers, boastful of their memories of Kemble and the elder Kean. And these players, in their day and in their turn, underwent disparagement at the hands of veterans who had seen Garrick. Pope, much as he admired Garrick, yet held fast to his old faith in Betterton. From a boy he had been acquainted with Betterton. He maintained Betterton to be the best actor he had ever seen. "But I ought to tell you, at the same time," he candidly admitted, "that in Betterton's time the older sort of people talked of Hart's being his superior, just as we do of Betterton's being superior to those now." So in the old-world tract, called "Historia Histrionica"—a dialogue upon the condition of the early stage, first published in 1699—Trueman, the veteran Cavalier playgoer, in reply to Lovewit, who had decided that the actors of his time were far inferior to Hart, Mohun, Burt, Lacy, Clun, and Shatterel, ventures to observe: "If my fancy and memory are not partial (for men of age are apt to be over-indulgent to the thoughts of their youthful days), I dare assure you that the actors I have seen before the war—Lowin, Taylor, Pollard, and some others—were almost as far beyond Hart and his company as those were beyond these now in being." In truth, age brings with it to the playhouse recollections, regrets, and palled appetite; middle life is too much prone to criticism, too little inclined to enthusiasm, for the securing of unmixed satisfaction; but youth is endowed with the faculty of admiring exceedingly, with hopefulness, and a keen sense of enjoyment, and, above all, with very complete power of self-deception. It is the youthful playgoers who are ever the best friends of the players.
As a rule, a boy will do anything, or almost anything, to go to a theatre. His delight in the drama is extreme—it possesses and absorbs him completely. Mr. Pepys has left on record Tom Killigrew's "way of getting to see plays when he was a boy." "He would go to the 'Red Bull' (at the upper end of St. John Street, Clerkenwell), and when the man cried to the boys—'Who will go and be a devil, and he shall see the play for nothing?' then would he go in and be a devil upon the stage, and so get to see plays." In one of his most delightful papers, Charles Lamb has described his first visit to a theatre. He "was not past six years old, and the play was 'Artaxerxes!' I had dabbled a little in the 'Universal History'—the ancient part of it—and here was the Court of Persia. It was being admitted to a sight of the past. I took no proper interest in the action going on, for I understood not its import, but I heard the word Darius, and I was in the midst of 'Daniel.' All feeling was absorbed in vision. Gorgeous vests, gardens, palaces, princesses, passed before me. I knew not players. I was in Persepolis for the time, and the burning idol of their devotion almost converted me into a worshipper. I was awe-struck, and believed those significations to be something more than elemental fires. It was all enchantment and a dream. No such pleasure has since visited me but in dreams." Returning to the theatre after an interval of some years, he vainly looked for the same feelings to recur with the same occasion. He was disappointed. "At the first period I knew nothing, understood nothing, discriminated nothing. I felt all, loved all, wondered all—'was nourished I could not tell how.' I had left the temple a devotee, and was returned a rationalist. The same things were there materially; but the emblem, the reference was gone! The green curtain was no longer a veil drawn between two worlds, the unfolding of which was to bring back past ages, to present a 'royal ghost'—but a certain quantity of green baize, which was to separate the audience for a given time from certain of their fellow-men who were to come forward and pretend those parts. The lights—the orchestra lights—came up a clumsy machinery. The first ring, and the second ring, was now but a trick of the prompter's bell—which had been, like the note of the cuckoo, a phantom of a voice; no hand seen or guessed at which ministered to its warning. The actors were men and women painted. I thought the fault was in them; but it was in myself, and the alteration which those many centuries—of six short twelvemonths—had wrought in me." Presently, however, Lamb recovered tone, so to speak, as a playgoer. Comparison and retrospection soon yielded to the present attraction of the scene, and the theatre became to him, "upon a new stock, the most delightful of recreations."
Audiences have always been miscellaneous. Among them not only youth and age, but rich and poor, wise and ignorant, good and bad, virtuous and vicious, have alike found representation. The gallery and the groundlings have been catered for not less than the spectators of the boxes and private rooms; yet, upon the whole, the stage, from its earliest period, has always provided entertainment of a reputable and wholesome kind. Even in its least commendable condition—and this, so far as England is concerned, we may judge to have been during the reign of King Charles II.—it yet possessed redeeming elements. It was never wholly bad, though it might now and then come very near to seeming so. And what it was, the audience had made it. It reflected their sentiments and opinions; it accorded with their moods and humours; it was their creature; its performers were their most faithful and zealous servants.
Playgoers, it appears, were not wont to ride to the theatre in coaches until late in the reign of James I. Taylor, the water-poet, in his invective against coaches, 1623, dedicated to all grieved "with the world running on wheels," writes: "Within our memories our nobility and gentry could ride well mounted, and sometimes walk on foot, gallantly attended with fourscore brave fellows in blue coats, which was a glory to our nation, far greater than forty of these leathern tumbrels! Then, the name of coach was heathen Greek. Who ever saw, but upon extraordinary occasions, Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Drake ride in a coach? They made small use of coaches; there were but few in those times; and they were deadly foes to sloth and effeminacy. It is in the memory of many when, in the whole kingdom, there was not one! It is a doubtful question whether the devil brought tobacco into England in a coach, for both appeared at the same time." According to Stow, coaches were introduced here 1564, by Guilliam Boonen, who afterwards became coachman to the queen. The first he ever made was for the Earl of Rutland; but the demand rapidly increased, until there ensued a great trade in coach-making, insomuch that a bill was brought into Parliament, in 1601, to restrain the excessive use of such vehicles. Between the coachmen and the watermen there was no very cordial understanding, as the above quotation from Taylor sufficiently demonstrates. In 1613 the Thames watermen petitioned the king, that the players should not be permitted to have a theatre in London, or Middlesex, within four miles of the Thames, in order that the inhabitants might be induced, as formerly, to make use of boats in their visits to the playhouses in Southwark. Not long afterwards sedans came into fashion, still further to the prejudice of the watermen. In the Induction to Ben Jonson's "Cynthia's Revels," performed in 1600, mention is made of "coaches, hobby-horses, and foot-cloth nags," as in ordinary use. In 1631 the churchwardens and constables, on behalf of the inhabitants of Blackfriars, in a petition to Laud, then Bishop of London, prayed for the removal of the playhouse from their parish, on the score of the many inconveniences they endured as shopkeepers, "being hindered by the great recourse to the playes, especially of coaches, from selling their commodities, and having their wares many times broken and beaten off their stalls." Further, they alleged that, owing to the great "recourse of coaches," and the narrowness of the streets, the inhabitants could not, in an afternoon, "take in any provision of beere, coales, wood, or hay;" the passage through Ludgate was many times stopped up, people "in their ordinary going" much endangered, quarrels and bloodshed occasioned, and disorderly people, towards night, gathered together under pretence of waiting for those at the plays. Christenings and burials were many times disturbed; persons of honour and quality dwelling in the parish were restrained, by the number of coaches, from going out or coming home in seasonable time, to "the prejudice of their occasions;" and it was suggested that, "if there should happen any misfortune of fire," it was not likely that any order could possibly be taken, since, owing to the number of the coaches, no speedy passage could be made for quenching the fire, to the endangering both of the parish and of the city. It does not appear that any action on the part of Laud or the Privy Council followed this curious petition.
It seems clear that the Elizabethan audiences were rather an unruly congregation. There was much cracking of nuts and consuming of pippins in the old playhouses; ale and wine were on sale, and tobacco was freely smoked by the upper class of spectators, for it was hardly yet common to all conditions. Previous to the performance, and during its pauses, the visitors read pamphlets or copies of plays bought at the playhouse-doors, and, as they drank and smoked, played at cards. In his "Gull's Horn Book," 1609, Dekker tells his hero, "before the play begins, fall to cards;" and, winning or losing, he is bidden to tear some of the cards and to throw them about, just before the entrance of the prologue. The ladies were treated to apples, and sometimes applied their lips to a tobacco-pipe. Prynne, in his "Histriomastix," 1633, states that, even in his time, ladies were occasionally "offered the tobacco-pipe" at plays. Then, as now, new plays attracted larger audiences than ordinary. Dekker observes, in his "News from Hell," 1606, "It was a comedy to see what a crowding, as if it had been at a new play, there was upon the Acherontic strand." How the spectators comported themselves upon these occasions, Ben Jonson, "the Mirror of Manners," as Mr. Collier well surnames him, has described in his comedy "The Case is Altered," acted at Blackfriars about 1599. "But the sport is, at a new play, to observe the sway and variety of opinion that passeth it. A man shall have such a confused mixture of judgment poured out in the throng there, as ridiculous as laughter itself. One says he likes not the writing; another likes not the plot; another not the playing; and sometimes a fellow that comes not there past once in five years, at a Parliament time or so, will be as deep-mired in censuring as the best, and swear, by God's foot, he would never stir his foot to see a hundred such as that is!" The conduct of the gallants, among whom were included those who deemed themselves critics and wits, appears to have usually been of a very unseemly and offensive kind. They sat upon the stage, paying sixpence or a shilling for the hire of a stool, or reclined upon the rushes with which the boards were strewn. Their pages were in attendance to fill their pipes; and they were noted for the capriciousness and severity of their criticisms. "They had taken such a habit of dislike in all things," says Valentine, in "The Case is Altered," "that they will approve nothing, be it ever so conceited or elaborate; but sit dispersed, making faces and spitting, wagging their upright ears, and cry: 'Filthy, filthy!'" Ben Jonson had suffered much from the censure of his audiences. In "The Devil is an Ass," he describes the demeanour of a gallant occupying a seat upon the stage. Fitsdottrell says:
To day I go to the Blackfriars playhouse, Sit in the view, salute all my acquaintance; Rise up between the acts, let fall my cloak; Publish a handsome man and a rich suit— And that's a special end why we go thither.
Of the cutpurses, rogues, and evil characters of both sexes who frequented the old theatres, abundant mention is made by the poets and satirists of the past. In this respect there can be no question that the censure which was so liberally awarded was also richly merited. Mr. Collier quotes from Edmund Gayton, an author who avowedly "wrote trite things merely to get bread to sustain him and his wife," and who published, in 1654, "Festivous Notes on the History of the renowned Don Quixote," a curious account of the behaviour of our early audiences at certain of the public theatres. "Men," it is observed, "come not to study at a playhouse, but love such expressions and passages which with ease insinuate themselves into their capacities.... On holidays, when sailors, watermen, shoemakers, butchers, and apprentices are at leisure, then it is good policy to amaze those violent spirits with some tearing tragedy full of fights and skirmishes ... the spectators frequently mounting the stage, and making a more bloody catastrophe among themselves than the players did." Occasionally, it appears, the audience compelled the actors to perform, not the drama their programmes had announced, but some other, such as "the major part of the company had a mind to: sometimes 'Tamerlane;' sometimes 'Jugurtha;' sometimes 'The Jew of Malta;' and, sometimes, parts of all these; and, at last, none of the three taking, they were forced to undress and put off their tragic habits, and conclude the day with 'The Merry Milkmaids.'" If it so chanced that the players were refractory, then "the benches, the tiles, the lathes, the stones, oranges, apples, nuts, flew about most liberally; and as there were mechanics of all professions, everyone fell to his own trade, and dissolved a house on the instant, and made a ruin of a stately fabric. It was not then the most mimical nor fighting man could pacify; prologues nor epilogues would prevail; the Devil and the Fool [evidently two popular characters at this time] were quite out of favour; nothing but noise and tumult fills the house," &c. &c.
Concerning the dramatist of the time, upon the occasion of the first performance of his play, his anxiety, irascibility, and peculiarities generally, Ben Jonson provides sufficient information. "We are not so officiously befriended by him," says one of the characters in the Induction to "Cynthia's Revels," "as to have his presence in the tiring-house, to prompt us aloud, stamp at the bookholder [or prompter], swear at our properties, curse the poor tireman, rail the musick out of tune, and sweat for every venial trespass we commit as some author would." While, in the Induction to his "Staple of News," Jonson has clearly portrayed himself. "Yonder he is," says Mirth, in reply to some remark touching the poet of the performance, "within—I was in the tiring-house awhile, to see the actors dressed—rolling himself up and down like a tun in the midst of them ... never did vessel, or wort, or wine, work so ... a stewed poet!... he doth sit like an unbraced drum, with one of his heads beaten out," &c. The dramatic poets, it may be noted, were admitted gratis to the theatres, and duly took their places among the spectators. Not a few of them were also actors. Dekker, in his "Satiromastix," accuses Jonson of sitting in the gallery during the performance of his own plays, distorting his countenance at every line, "to make gentlemen have an eye on him, and to make players afraid" to act their parts. A further charge is thus worded: "Besides, you must forswear to venture on the stage, when your play is ended, and exchange courtesies and compliments with the gallants in the lords' rooms (or boxes), to make all the house rise up in arms, and cry: 'That's Horace! that's he! that's he! that's he that purges humours and diseases!'"
Jonson makes frequent complaint of the growing fastidiousness of his audience, and nearly fifty years later, the same charge against the public is repeated by Davenant, in the Prologue to his "Unfortunate Lovers." He tells the spectators that they expect to have in two hours ten times more wit than was allowed their silly ancestors in twenty years, who
to the theatre would come, Ere they had dined, to take up the best room; There sit on benches not adorned with mats, And graciously did vail their high-crowned hats To every half-dressed player, as he still Through the hangings peeped to see how the house did fill. Good easy judging souls! with what delight They would expect a jig or target fight; A furious tale of Troy, which they ne'er thought Was weakly written so 'twere strongly fought.
As to the playgoers of the Restoration we have abundant information from the poet Dryden, and the diarist Pepys. For some eighteen years the theatres had been absolutely closed, and during that interval very great changes had occurred. England, under Charles II., seemed as a new and different country to the England of preceding monarchs. The restored king and his courtiers brought with them from their exile in France strange manners, and customs, and tastes. The theatre they favoured was scarcely the theatre that had flourished in England before the Civil War. Dryden reminds the spectators, in one of his prologues—
You now have habits, dances, scenes, and rhymes, High language often, ay, and sense sometimes.
There was an end of dramatic poetry, as it was understood under Elizabeth. Blank verse had expired or swooned away, never again to be wholly reanimated. Fantastic tragedies in rhyme, after the French pattern, became the vogue; and absolute translations from the French and Spanish for the first time occupied the English stage. Shakespeare and his colleagues had converted existing materials to dramatic uses, but not as did the playwrights of the Restoration. In the Epilogue to the comedy of "An Evening's Love; or, The Mock Astrologer," borrowed from "Le Feint Astrologue" of the younger Corneille, Dryden, the adapter of the play, makes jesting defence of the system of adaptation. The critics are described as conferring together in the pit on the subject of the performance:
They kept a fearful stir In whispering that he stole the Astrologer: And said, betwixt a French and English plot, He eased his half-tired muse on pace and trot. Up starts a Monsieur, new come o'er, and warm In the French stoop and pull-back of the arm: "Morbleu," dit-il, and cocks, "I am a rogue, But he has quite spoiled the 'Feigned Astrologue!'"
The poet is supposed to make excuse:
He neither swore, nor stormed, as poets do, But, most unlike an author, vowed 'twas true; Yet said he used the French like enemies, And did not steal their plots but made them prize.
Dryden concludes with a sort of apology for his own productiveness, and the necessity of borrowing that it involved:
He still must write, and banquier-like, each day Accept new bills, and he must break or pay. When through his hands such sums must yearly run, You cannot think the stock is all his own.
Pepys, who, born in 1633, must have had experiences of youthful playgoing before the great Civil War, finds evidence afterwards of "the vanity and prodigality of the age" in the nightly company of citizens, 'prentices, and others attending the theatre, and holds it a grievance that there should be so many "mean people" in the pit at two shillings and sixpence apiece. For several years, he mentions, he had gone no higher than the twelvepenny, and then the eighteenpenny places. Oftentimes, however, the king and his court, the Duke and Duchess of York, and the young Duke of Monmouth, were to be seen in the boxes. In 1662 Charles's consort, Catherine, was first exhibited to the English public at the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane, when Shirley's "Cardinal" was represented. Then there are accounts of scandals and indecorums in the theatre. Evelyn reprovingly speaks of the public theatres being abused to an "atheistical liberty." Nell Gwynne is in front of the curtain prattling with the fops, lounging across and leaning over them, and conducting herself saucily and impudently enough. Moll Davis is in one box, and my Lady Castlemaine, with the king, in another. Moll makes eyes at the king, and he at her. My Lady Castlemaine detects the interchange of glances, and "when she saw Moll Davies she looked like fire, which troubled me," said Mr. Pepys, who, to do him justice, was often needlessly troubled about matters with which, in truth, he had very little concern. There were brawls in the theatre, and tipsiness, and much license generally. In 1682 two gentlemen, disagreeing in the pit, drew their swords and climbed to the stage. There they fought furiously until a sudden sword-thrust stretched one of the combatants upon the boards. The wound was not mortal, however, and the duellists, after a brief confinement by order of the authorities, were duly set at liberty.
The fop of the Restoration was a different creature to the Elizabethan gallant. Etherege satirised him in his "Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter," Dryden supplying the comedy with an epilogue, in which he fully described certain of the prevailing follies of the time in regard to dress and manners. The audience are informed that
None Sir Fopling him or him can call, He's knight of the shire and represents you all! From each he meets he culls whate'er he can; Legion's his name, a people in a man.
* * * * *
His various modes from various fathers follow; One taught the toss, and one the new French wallow; His sword-knot this, his cravat that designed; And this the yard-long snake he twirls behind. From one the sacred periwig he gained, Which wind ne'er blew nor touch of hat profaned. Another's diving bow he did adore, Which, with a shog, casts all the hair before, Till he with full decorum brings it back, And rises with a water-spaniel shake.
Upon another occasion the poet writes:
But only fools, and they of vast estate, The extremity of modes will imitate, The dangling knee-fringe and the bib-cravat.
While the fops were thus equipped, the ladies wore vizard-masks, and upon the appearance of one of these in the pit—
Straight every man who thinks himself a wit, Perks up, and managing his comb with grace, With his white wig sets off his nut-brown face.
For it was the fashion of the gentlemen to toy with their soaring, large-curled periwigs, smoothing them with a comb. Between the fops and the ladies goodwill did not always prevail. The former were, no doubt, addicted to gross impertinence in their conversation.
Fop Corner now is free from civil war, White wig and vizard-mask no longer jar, France and the fleet have swept the town so clear.
So Dryden "prologuised" in 1672, attributing the absence of "all our braves and all our wits" to the war which England, in conjunction with France, had undertaken against the Dutch.
Queen Anne, in 1704, expressly ordered that "no woman should be allowed, or presume to wear, a vizard-mask in either of the theatres." At the same time it was commanded that no person, of what quality soever, should presume to go behind the scenes, or come upon the stage, either before or during the acting of any play; and that no person should come into either house without paying the price established for their respective places. And the disobedient were publicly warned that they would be proceeded against, as "contemners of our royal authority and disturbers of the public peace."
These royal commands were not very implicitly obeyed. Vizard-masks may have been discarded promptly, but there was much crowding, behind the scenes and upon the stage, of persons of quality for many years after. Garrick, in 1762, once and for ever, succeeded in clearing the boards of the unruly mob of spectators, and secured room to move upon the scene for himself and his company. But it was only by enlarging his theatre, and in such wise increasing the number of seats available for spectators in the auditory of the house, that he was enabled to effect this reform. From that date the playgoers of the past grew more and more like the playgoers of the present, until the flight of time rendered distinction between them no longer possible, and merged yesterday in to-day. There must have been a very important change in the aspect of the house, however, when hair powder went out of fashion in 1795; when swords ceased to be worn—for, of course, then there could be no more rising of the pit to slash the curtain and scenery, to prick the performers, and to lunge at the mirrors and decorations; when gold and silver lace vanished from coats and waistcoats, silks and velvets gave place to broadcloth and pantaloons; and when, afterwards, trousers covered those nether limbs which had before, and for so long a period, been exhibited in silk stockings. Yet these alterations were accomplished gradually, no doubt. All was not done in a single night. Fashion makes first one convert, and then another, and so on, until all are numbered among her followers and wear the livery she has prescribed. Garrick's opinion of those playgoers of his time, whom he at last banished from his stage, may be gathered from the dialogue between AEsop and the Fine Gentleman, in his farce of "Lethe." AEsop inquires: "How do you spend your evening, sir?" "I dress in the evening," says the Fine Gentleman, "and go generally behind the scenes of both playhouses; not, you may imagine, to be diverted with the play, but to intrigue and show myself. I stand upon the stage, talk loud, and stare about, which confounds the actors and disturbs the audience. Upon which the galleries, who hate the appearance of one of us, begin to hiss, and cry, 'Off, off!' while I, undaunted, stamp my foot, so; loll with my shoulder, thus; take snuff with my right hand, and smile scornfully, thus. This exasperates the savages, and they attack us with volleys of sucked oranges and half-eaten pippins." "And you retire?" "Without doubt, if I am sober; for orange will stain silk, and an apple may disfigure a feature."
In the Italian opera-houses of London there have long prevailed managerial ordinances touching the style of dress to be assumed by the patrons of those establishments; the British playgoer, however, attending histrionic performances in his native tongue has been left to his own devices in that respect. It cannot be said that much harm has resulted from the full liberty permitted him, or that neglect on his part has impaired the generally attractive aspect of our theatrical auditories. Nevertheless, occasional eccentricity has been forthcoming, if only to incur rebuke. We may cite an instance or two.
In December, 1738, the editor of The London Evening Post was thus addressed by a correspondent assuming the character of Miss Townley:
"I am a young woman of fashion who love plays, and should be glad to frequent them as an agreeable and instructive entertainment, but am debarred that diversion by my relations upon account of a sort of people who now fill or rather infest the boxes. I went the other night to the play with an aunt of mine, a well-bred woman of the last age, though a little formal. When we sat down in the front boxes we found ourselves surrounded by a parcel of the strangest fellows that ever I saw in my life; some of them had those loose kind of great-coats on which I have heard called wrap-rascals, with gold-laced hats, slouched in humble imitation of stage-coachmen; others aspired at being grooms, and had dirty boots and spurs, with black caps on, and long whips in their hands; a third sort wore scanty frocks, with little, shabby hats, put on one side, and clubs in their hands. My aunt whispered me that she never saw such a set of slovenly, unmannerly footmen sent to keep places in her life, when, to her great surprise, she saw those fellows, at the end of the act, pay the box-keeper for their places."
In 1730 the "Universal Spectator" notes: "The wearing of swords, at the Court end of the town, is, by many polite young gentlemen, laid aside; and instead thereof they carry large oak sticks, with great heads and ugly faces carved thereon."
Elliston was, in 1827, lessee and manager of the Surrey Theatre. "Quite an opera pit," he said to Charles Lamb, conducting him over the benches of that establishment, described by Lamb as "the last retreat of his every-day waning grandeur." The following letter—the authenticity of which seems to be vouched for by the actor's biographer—supplies a different view of the Surrey audience of that date:
"August 10th, 1827.
"SIR,—I really must beg to call your attention to a most abominable nuisance which exists in your house, and which is, in a great measure, the cause of the minor theatres not holding the rank they should amongst playhouses. I mean the admission of sweeps into the theatre in the very dress in which they climb chimneys. This not only incommodes ladies and gentlemen by the obnoxious odour arising from their attire, but these sweeps take up twice the room of other people because the ladies, in particular, object to their clothes being soiled by such unpleasant neighbours. I have with my wife been much in the habit of visiting the Surrey Theatre, and on three occasions we have been annoyed by these sweeps. People will not go, sir, where sweeps are; and you will find, sooner or later, these gentlemen will have the whole theatre to themselves unless an alteration be made. I own, at some theatres, the managers are too particular in dress; those days are passed, and the public have a right to go to theatrical entertainments in their morning costumes; but this ought not to include the sweeps. It is not a week ago since a lady in a nice white gown sat down on the very spot which a nasty sweep had just quitted, and, when she got up, the sight was most horrible, for she was a very heavy lady and had laughed a good deal during the performance; but it was no laughing matter to her when she got home. I hope I have said quite enough, and am your
"R.W. Elliston, Esq."
No doubt some reform followed upon this urgent complaint.
Regulations as to dress are peculiar to our Italian opera-houses, are unknown, as Mr. Sutherland Edwards writes in his "History of the Opera," "even in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where, as the theatres are directed by the Imperial Government, one might expect to find a more despotic code of laws in force than in a country like England. When an Englishman goes to a morning or evening concert, he does not present himself in the attire of a scavenger, and there is no reason for supposing that he would appear in any unbecoming garb if liberty of dress were permitted to him at the opera.... If the check-takers are empowered to inspect and decide as to the propriety of the cut and colour of clothes, why should they not also be allowed to examine the texture? On the same principle, too, the cleanliness of opera-goers ought to be inquired into. No one whose hair is not properly brushed should be permitted to enter the stalls, and visitors to the pit should be compelled to show their nails."
There have been, from time to time, protests, unavailing however, against the tyranny of the opera-managers. In his "Seven Years of the King's Theatre" (1828), Mr. Ebers publishes the remonstrance of a gentleman refused admission to the opera on the score of his imperfect costume, much to his amazement; "for," he writes, "I was dressed in a superfine blue coat with gold buttons, white waistcoat, fashionable tight drab pantaloons, white silk stockings and dress shoes, all worn but once, a few days before, at a dress concert, at the Crown and Anchor Tavern." He proceeds to express his indignation at the idea of the manager presuming to enact sumptuary laws without the intervention of the Legislature, and adds threats of legal proceedings and an appeal to a British jury. "I have mixed," he continues, "too much in genteel society not to know that black breeches, or pantaloons, with black silk stockings, is a very prevailing full dress, and why is it so? Because it is convenient and economical, for you can wear a pair of white silk stockings but once without washing, and a fair of black is frequently worn for weeks without ablution. P.S.—I have no objection to submit an inspection of my dress of the evening in question to you or any competent person you may appoint." Of this offer it would seem that Mr. Ebers did not avail himself.
THE MASTER OF THE REVELS.
Lords of Misrule and Abbots of Unreason had long presided over the Yuletide festivities of Old England; in addition to these functionaries King Henry VIII. nominated a Master and Yeoman of the Revels to act as the subordinates of his Lord Chamberlain, and expressly to provide and supervise the general entertainments and pastimes of the court. These had already been ordered and established after a manner that seemed extravagant by contrast with the economical tastes of the preceding sovereign, who yet had not shown indifference to the attractions of poetry, music, and the stage. But Henry VIII., according to the testimony of Hall, was a proficient, not less in arms than in arts; he exercised himself daily in shooting, singing, dancing, wrestling, "casting of the bar, playing at the recorders, flute, virginals, and in setting of songs, making of ballettes; and did set two goodly masses, every in them five parts, which were sung oftentimes in his chapel, and afterwards in divers other places." Early in his reign he appointed Richard Gibson, one of his father's company of players, to be "yeoman tailor to the king," and subsequently "serjeant-at-arms and of the tents and revels;" and in 1546 he granted a patent to Sir Thomas Cawarden, conferring upon him the office of "Magistri Jocorum, Revellorum et Mascorum, omnium et singulorum nostrorum, vulgariter nuncupatorum Revells et Masks," with a salary of L10 sterling—a very modest stipend; but then Sir Thomas enjoyed other emoluments from his situation as one of the gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. The Yeoman of the Revels, who assisted the Master and probably discharged the chief duties of his office, received an annual allowance of L9 2s. 6d., and eight players of interludes were awarded incomes, of L3 6s. 8d. To these remote appointments of "yeoman tailor," and "Master of the Revels," is due that office of "Licenser of Plays," which, strange to say, is extant and even flourishing in the present year of grace.
As Chalmers has pointed out, however, in his "Apology for the Believers in the Shakespearean Papers," the King's Chamberlain, or, as he was styled in all formal proceedings of the time, Camerarius Hospitii, had the government and superintendence of the king's hunting and revels, of the comedians, musicians, and other royal servants; and was, by virtue of the original constitution of his office, the real Master of the Revels, "the great director of the sports of the court by night as well as of the sports of the field by day." Still the odium of his office, especially in its relation to plays and players, could not but attach to his subordinates and deputies the Masters of the Revels; "tasteless and officious tyrants," as Gifford describes them in a note to Ben Jonson's "Alchemist," "who acted with little discrimination, and were always more ready to prove their authority than their judgment, the most hateful of them all being Sir Henry Herbert," appointed by Charles I. to an office which naturally expired when the Puritans suppressed the stage and did their utmost to exterminate the players. At the Restoration, however, Herbert resumed his duties; but he found, as Chalmers relates, "that the recent times had given men new habits of reasoning, notions of privileges, and propensities to resistance. He applied to the courts of justice for redress; but the verdicts of judges were contradictory; he appealed to the ruler of the state, but without receiving redress or exciting sympathy: like other disputed jurisdictions, the authority of the Master of the Revels continued to be oppressive till the Revolution taught new lessons to all parties."
It is to be observed, however, that the early severities and arbitrary caprices to which the players were subjected, were not attributable solely to the action of the Masters of the Revels. The Privy Council was constant in its interference with the affairs of the theatre. A suspicion was for a long time rife that the dramatic representations of the sixteenth century touched upon matters of religion or points of doctrine, and oftentimes contained matters "tending to sedition and to the contempt of sundry good orders and laws." Proclamations were from time to time issued inhibiting the players and forbidding the representation of plays and interludes. In 1551 even the actors attached to the households of noblemen were not allowed to perform without special leave from the Privy Council; and the authorities of Gray's Inn, once famous for its dramatic representations, expressly ordered that there should be "no comedies called interludes in this house out of term time, but when the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord is solemnly observed." Upon the accession of Queen Mary, in 1553, dramatic representations, whether or not touching upon points of religious doctrine, appear to have been forbidden for a period of two years. In 1556 the Star Chamber issued orders, addressed to the justices of the peace in every county in the kingdom, with instructions that they should be rigorously enforced, forbidding the representation of dramatic productions of all kinds. Still, in Mary's reign, certain miracle plays, designed to inculcate and enforce the tenets of the Roman Catholic religion, were now and then encouraged by the public authorities; and in 1557 the Queen sanctioned various sports and pageants of a dramatic kind, apparently for the entertainment of King Philip, then arrived from Flanders, and of the Russian ambassador, who had reached England a short time before.
The players had for a long while few temptations to resist authority, whether rightfully or wrongfully exercised. Sufferance was the badge of their tribe. They felt constrained to submit without question or repining, when loud-toned commands were addressed to them, dreading lest worse things should come about. It was a sort of satisfaction to them, at last, to find themselves governed by so distinguished a personage as the Lord Chamberlain, or even by his inferior officer the Master of the Revels. It was true that he might, as he often did, deal with them absurdly and severely; but even in this abuse of his power there was valuable recognition of their profession—it became invested with a measure of lawfulness, otherwise often denied it by common opinion. How it chanced that a member of the royal household ruled not only the dramatic representations of the court, but controlled arbitrarily enough, plays and players generally, no one appeared to know, or thought it worth while to inquire. As Colley Cibber writes: "Though in all the letters patent for acting plays, &c., since King Charles I.'s time, there has been no mention of the Lord Chamberlain, or of any subordination to his command or authority, yet it was still taken for granted that no letters patent, by the bare omission of such a great officer's name, could have superseded or taken out of his hands that power which time out of mind he always had exercised over the theatre. But as the truth of the question seemed to be wrapt in a great deal of obscurity in the old laws, made in former reigns, relating to players, &c., it may be no wonder that the best companies of actors should be desirous of taking shelter under the visible power of a Lord Chamberlain, who, they knew, had at his pleasure favoured and protected, or borne hard upon them; but be all this as it may, a Lord Chamberlain, from whencesoever his power might be derived, had, till of later years, had always an implicit obedience paid to it."
Among the duties undertaken by the Lord Chamberlain was the licensing or refusing new plays, with the suppression of such portions of them as he might deem objectionable; which province was assigned to his inferior, the Master of the Revels. This, be it understood, was long before the passing of the Licensing Act of 1737, which indeed, although it gave legal sanction to the power of the Lord Chamberlain, did not really invest him with much more power than he had often before exercised. Even in Charles II.'s time, the representation of "The Maid's Tragedy," of Beaumont and Fletcher, had been forbidden by an order from the Lord Chamberlain. It was conjectured that "the killing of the king in that play, while the tragical death of King Charles I. was then so fresh in people's memory, was an object too horribly impious for a public entertainment;" and, accordingly, the courtly poet Waller occupied himself in altering the catastrophe of the story, so as to save the life of the king. Another opinion prevailed, to the effect that the murder accomplished by the heroine Evadne offered "a dangerous example to other Evadnes then shining at court in the same rank of royal distinction." In the same reign also, Nat Lee's tragedy of "Lucius Junius Brutus," "was silenced after three performances;" it being objected that the plan and sentiments of it had too boldly vindicated, and might inflame, Republican principles. A prologue, by Dryden, to "The Prophetess," was prohibited, on account of certain "familiar metaphorical sneers at the Revolution" it was supposed to contain, at a time when King William was prosecuting the war in Ireland. Bank's tragedy of "Mary, Queen of Scotland," was withheld from the stage for twenty years, owing to "the profound penetration of the Master of the Revels, who saw political spectres in it that never appeared in the presentation." From Cibber's version of "Richard III.," the first act was wholly expunged, lest "the distresses of King Henry VI., who is killed by Richard in the first act, should put weak people too much in mind of King James, then living in France." In vain did Cibber petition the Master of the Revels "for the small indulgence of a speech or two, that the other four acts might limp on with a little less absurdity. No! He had not leisure to consider what might be separately inoffensive!" So, too, some eight years before the passing of the Licensing Act, Gay's ballad opera of "Polly," designed as a sequel to "The Beggar's Opera," incurred the displeasure of the Chamberlain, and was denied the honours of representation.
Nor was it only on political grounds that the Lord Chamberlain or the Master of the Revels exercised his power. The "View of the Stage," published by the nonjuring clergyman, Jeremy Collier, in 1697, first drew public attention to the immorality and profanity of the dramatic writers of that period. The diatribes and rebukes of Collier, if here and there a trifle overstrained, were certainly, for the most part, provoked by the nature of the case, and were justified by the result. Even Cibber, who had been cited as one of the offenders, admits that "his calling our dramatic writers to this strict account had a very wholesome effect upon those who wrote after this time. They were now a great deal more upon their guard ... and, by degrees, the fair sex came again to fill the boxes on the first day of a new comedy, without fear of censure." For some time, it seems, the ladies had been afraid of venturing "bare-faced" to a new comedy, till they had been assured that they could do it without risk of affront; "or if," as Cibber says, "their curiosity was too strong for their patience, they took care, at least, to save appearances, and rarely came upon the first days of acting but in masks, then daily worn and admitted in the pit, the side-boxes, and gallery." This reform of the drama, it is to be observed, was really effected, not by the agency of the Chamberlain or any other court official, but by force of the just criticism, strenuously delivered, of a private individual. But now, following the example of Collier, the Master of the Revels, in his turn, insisted upon amendment in this matter, and oftentimes forbade the performance of whole scenes that he judged to be vicious or immoral. He had constituted himself a Censor Morum; a character in which the modern Licenser of Plays still commends himself to our notice.
Moreover, the Chamberlain had arrogated to himself the right of interfering in dramatic affairs upon all occasions that he judged fitting. Upon his authority the theatres were closed at any moment, even for a period of six weeks, in the case of the death of the sovereign. If any disputes occurred between managers and actors, even in relation to so small a matter as the privileges of the latter, the Chamberlain interfered to arrange the difficulty according to his own notion of justice. No actor could quit the company of one patent theatre, to join the forces of the other, without the permission of the Chamberlain, in addition to the formal discharge of his manager. Powell, the actor, even suffered imprisonment on this account, although it was thought as well, after a day or two, to abandon the proceedings that had been taken against him. "Upon this occasion," says Cibber, with a mysterious air, and in very involved terms, "behind the scenes at Drury Lane, a person of great quality, in my hearing, inquiring of Powell into the nature of his offence ... told him, that if he had patience, or spirit enough to have stayed in his confinement till he had given him notice of it, he would have found him a handsomer way of coming out of it!" Of the same actor, Powell, it is recorded that he once, at Will's Coffee House, "in a dispute about playhouse affairs, struck a gentleman whose family had been some time masters of it." A complaint of the actor's violence was lodged at the Chamberlain's office, and Powell having a part in the play announced for performance upon the following day, an order was sent to silence the whole company, and to close the theatre, although it was admitted that the managers had been without cognisance of their actor's misconduct! "However," Cibber narrates, "this order was obeyed, and remained in force for two or three days, till the same authority was pleased, or advised, to revoke it. From the measures this injured gentleman took for his redress, it may be judged how far it was taken for granted that a Lord Chamberlain had an absolute power over the theatre." An attempt, however, upon the authority of the Chamberlain to imprison Dogget, the actor, for breach of his engagement with the patentees of Drury Lane Theatre, met with signal discomfiture. Dogget forthwith applied to the Lord Chief Justice Holt for his discharge under the Habeas Corpus Act, and readily obtained it, with, it may be gathered, liberal compensation for the violence to which he had been subjected.
The proceedings of the Lord Chamberlain had, indeed, become most oppressive. Early in 1720, the Duke of Newcastle, then Lord Chamberlain, took upon himself to close Drury Lane Theatre. Steele, then one of the patentees, addressed the public upon the subject. He had lived in friendship with the duke; he owed his seat in Parliament to the duke's influence. He commenced with saying: "The injury which I have received, great as it is, has nothing in it so painful as that it comes from whence it does. When I complained of it in a private letter to the Chamberlain, he was pleased to send his secretary to me with a message to forbid me writing, speaking, corresponding, or applying to him in any manner whatsoever. Since he has been pleased to send an English gentleman a banishment from his person and counsels in a style thus royal, I doubt not but that the reader will justify me in the method I take to explain this matter to the town." Steele could obtain no redress, however. He was virtually dispossessed of his rights as patentee. He estimated his loss at nine thousand eight hundred pounds, and concluded his statement of the case with the words: "But it is apparent the King is grossly and shamelessly injured ... I never did one act to provoke this attempt, nor does the Chamberlain pretend to assign any direct reason of forfeiture, but openly and wittingly declares that he will ruin Steele.... The Lord Chamberlain and many others may, perhaps, have done more for the House of Hanover than I have, but I am the only man in his majesty's dominions, who did all he could." For some months Steele was replaced by other patentees, of whom Cibber was one, more submissive to "the lawful monarch of the stage," as Dennis designated the Chamberlain; but in 1721, upon the intervention of Walpole, Steele was restored to his privileges. It is not clear, however, that he took any legal measures to obtain compensation for the wrong done him. Cibber is silent upon the subject; because, it has been suggested, the Chamberlain had been instrumental in obtaining him the appointment of poet laureate, which could hardly have devolved upon him in right of his poetic qualifications.
Nevertheless, Cibber had been active in organising a form of opposition to the authority of the Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels, which, although it seemed of a trifling kind, had yet its importance. For it turned upon the question of fees. The holders of the patents considered themselves sole judges of the plays proper to be acted in their theatres. The Master of the Revels claimed his fee of forty shillings for each play produced. The managers, it seems, were at liberty to represent new plays without consulting him, and to spare him the trouble of reading the same—provided always they paid him his fees. But these they now thought it expedient to withhold from him. Cibber was deputed to attend the Master of the Revels, and to inquire into the justice of his demand, with full powers to settle the dispute amicably. Charles Killigrew at this time filled the office, having succeeded his father Thomas, who had obtained the appointment of Master of the Revels upon the death of Sir Henry Herbert in 1673. Killigrew could produce no warrant for his demand. Cibber concluded with telling him that "as his pretensions were not backed with any visible instrument of right, and as his strongest plea was custom, the managers could not so far extend their complaisance as to continue the payment of fees upon so slender a claim to them." From that time neither their plays nor his fees gave either party any further trouble. In 1725 Killigrew was succeeded as Master of the Revels by Charles Henry Lea, who for some years continued to exercise "such authority as was not opposed, and received such fees as he could find the managers willing to pay."
The first step towards legislation in regard to the theatres and the licensing of plays was made in 1734, when Sir John Barnard moved the House of Commons "for leave to bring in a bill for restraining the number of houses for playing of interludes and for the better regulating common players of interludes." It was represented that great mischief had been done in the city of London by the playhouses: youth had been corrupted, vice encouraged, trade and industry prejudiced. Already the number of theatres in London was double that of Paris. In addition to the opera-house, the French playhouse in the Haymarket, and the theatres in Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Goodman's Fields, there was now a project to erect a new playhouse in St. Martin's-le-Grand. It was no less surprising than shameful to see so great a change in the temper and inclination of the British people; "we now exceeded in levity even the French themselves, from whom we learned these and many other ridiculous customs, as much unsuitable to the mien and manners of an Englishman or a Scot, as they were agreeable to the air and levity of a Monsieur." Moreover, it was remarked that, to the amazement and indignation of all Europe, Italian singers received here "set salaries equal to those of the Lords of the Treasury and Judges of England!" The bill was duly brought in, but was afterwards dropped, "on account of a clause offered to be inserted ... for enlarging the power of the Lord Chamberlain with respect to the licensing of plays." It is curious to find that Tony Aston, a popular comedian of the time, who had been bred an attorney, was, upon his own petition, permitted to deliver a speech in the House of Commons against Sir John Barnard's bill.
But two years later the measure was substantially passed into law. The theatres had certainly given in the meantime serious provocation to the authorities. The power of the Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels had been derided. Playhouses were opened and plays produced without any kind of license. At the Haymarket, under the management of Fielding, who styled his actors "The Great Mogul's Comedians," the bills announcing that they had "dropped from the clouds" (in mockery, probably, of "His Majesty's Servants" at Drury Lane, or of another troop describing themselves as "The Comedians of His Majesty's Revels"), the plays produced had been in the nature of political lampoons. Walpole and his arts of government were openly satirised, Fielding having no particular desire to spare the prime minister, whose patronage he had vainly solicited. In the play entitled "Pasquin, a Dramatic Satire on the Times; being the rehearsal of two plays, viz., a Comedy, called The Election, and a Tragedy, called the Life and Death of Common Sense," the satire was chiefly aimed at the electoral corruptions of the age, the abuses prevailing in the learned professions, and the servility of place-men who derided public virtue, and denied the existence of political honesty. "Pasquin," it may be noted, was received with extraordinary favour, enjoyed a run of fifty nights, and proved a source of both fame and profit to its author. But the play of "The Historical Register of 1736," produced in the spring of 1737, contained allusions of a more pointed and personal kind, and gravely offended the government. Indeed, the result could hardly have been otherwise. Walpole himself was brought upon the stage, and under the name of Quidam violently caricatured. He was exhibited silencing noisy patriots with bribes, and then joining with them in a dance—the proceedings being explained by Medley, another of the characters, supposed to be an author: "Sir, every one of these patriots has a hole in his pocket, as Mr. Quidam the fiddler there knows; so that he intends to make them dance till all the money has fallen through, which he will pick up again, and so not lose a halfpenny by his generosity!" The play, indeed, abounded in satire of the boldest kind, in witty and unsparing invective; as the biographer of Fielding acknowledges, there was much in the work "well calculated both to offend and alarm a wary minister of state." Soon both "Pasquin" and "The Historical Register" were brought under the notice of the Cabinet. Walpole felt "that it would be inexpedient to allow the stage to become the vehicle of anti-ministerial abuse." The Licensing Act was resolved upon.
The new measure was not avowedly aimed at Fielding, however. It was preceded by incidents of rather a suspicious kind. Gifford, the manager of Goodman's Fields Theatre, professing to have received from some anonymous writer a play of singular scurrility, carried the work to the prime minister. The obsequious manager was rewarded with one thousand pounds for his patriotic conduct, and the libellous nature of the play he had surrendered was made the excuse for the legislation that ensued. It was freely observed at the time, however, that Gifford had profited more by suppressing the play than he could possibly have gained by representing it, and that there was something more than natural in the appositeness of his receipt of it. If honest, it was suggested that he had been trapped by a government spy, who had sent him the play, solely that he might deal with it as he did; but it was rather assumed that he had disingenuously curried favour with the authorities, and sold himself for treasury gold. The play in question was never acted or printed; nor was the name of the author, or of the person from whom the manager professed to have received it, ever disclosed. Horace Walpole, indeed, boldly ascribed it to Fielding, and asserted that he had discovered among his father's papers an imperfect copy of the play. But the statement has not obtained much acceptance.
The ministry hurried on their Licensing Bill. It was entitled "An Act to explain and amend so much of an Act made in the twelfth year of Queen Anne, entitled 'An Act for reducing the laws relating to rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and vagrants, into one Act of Parliament; and for a more effectual punishing such rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and vagrants, and sending them whither they ought to be sent,' as relates to common players of interludes." But its chief object—undisclosed by its title, was the enactment that, for the future, every dramatic piece, including prologues and epilogues, should, previous to performance, receive the license of the Lord Chamberlain, and that, without his permission, no London theatre, unprotected by a patent, should open its doors. Read a first time on the 24th of May, 1737, the bill was passed through both Houses with such despatch that it received the royal assent on the 8th of June following. It was opposed in the House of Commons by Mr. Pulteney, and in the House of Lords by the Earl of Chesterfield, whose impressive speech on the occasion is one of the few specimens that survive of the parliamentary eloquence of the period. With the passing of the Licensing Act, Fielding's career as manager and dramatist was brought to a close. He was constrained to devote himself to the study of the law, and subsequently to the production of novels. And with the passing of the Licensing Act terminated the existence of the Master of the Revels; the Act, indeed, made no mention of him, ignored him altogether. He survived, however, under another name—still as the Chamberlain's subordinate and deputy. Thence forward he was known as the Licenser of Playhouses and Examiner of Plays.
THE LICENSER OF PLAYHOUSES.
The Act of 1737 for licensing plays, playhouses, and players, and legalising the power the Lord Chamberlain had long been accustomed to exercise, although readily passed by both Houses of Parliament, gave great offence to the public. The Abbe Le Blanc, who was visiting England at this period, describes the new law as provoking a "universal murmur in the nation." It was openly complained of in the newspapers; at the coffee-houses it was denounced as unjust and "contrary to the liberties of the people of England." Fear prevailed that the freedom of the press would next be invaded. In the House of Lords Chesterfield had stigmatised the measure both as an encroachment on liberty and an attack on property. "Wit, my lords," he said, "is a sort of property. It is the property of those that have it, and too often the only property they have to depend on. It is, indeed; but a precarious dependence. Thank God, we, my lords, have a dependence of another kind. We have a much less precarious support, and, therefore, cannot feel the inconveniences of the bill now before us; but it is our duty to encourage and protect wit, whosoever's property it may be.... I must own I cannot easily agree to the laying of a tax upon wit; but by this bill it is to be heavily taxed—it is to be excised; for if this bill passes, it cannot be retailed in a proper way without a permit; and the Lord Chamberlain is to have the honour of being chief gauger, supervisor, commissioner, judge and jury." At this time, however, it is to be noted that parliamentary reporting was forbidden by both Houses. The general public, therefore, knew little of Lord Chesterfield's eloquent defence of the liberty of the stage.
The Act was passed in June, when the patent theatres, according to custom, were closed for the summer. Some two months after their reopening in the autumn all dramatic representations were suspended for six weeks, in consequence of the death of Queen Caroline. In January was presented at Covent Garden "A Nest of Plays," as the author, one Hildebrand Jacob, described his production: a combination of three short plays, each consisting of one act only, entitled respectively, "The Prodigal Reformed," "Happy Constancy," and "The Trial of Conjugal Love." The performance met with a very unfavourable reception. The author attributed the ill success of his work to its being the first play licensed by the authority of the Lord Chamberlain under the new bill, many spectators having predetermined to silence, under any circumstances, "the first fruits of that Act of Parliament." And this seems, indeed, to have been the case. The Abbe Le Blanc, who was present on the occasion, writes: "The best play in the world would not have succeeded that night. There was a disposition to damn whatever might appear. The farce in question was damned, indeed, without the least compassion. Nor was that all, for the actors were driven off the stage, and happy was it for the author that he did not fall into the hands of this furious assembly." And the Abbe proceeds to explain that the originators of this disturbance were not "schoolboys, apprentices, clerks, or mechanics," but lawyers, "a body of gentlemen perhaps less honoured, but certainly more feared here than they are in France," who, "from living in colleges (Inns of Court), and from conversing always with one another, mutually preserve a spirit of independency through the body, and with great ease form cabals.... At Paris the cabals of the pit are only among young fellows, whose years may excuse their folly, or persons of the meanest education and stamp; here they are the fruit of deliberation in a very grave body of people, who are not less formidable to the minister in place than to the theatrical writers." But the Abbe relates that on a subsequent occasion, when another new play having been announced, he had looked for further disturbance, the judicious dramatist of the night succeeded in calming the pit by administering in his prologue a double dose of incense to their vanity. "Half-an-hour before the play was to begin the spectators gave notice of their dispositions by frightful hisses and outcries, equal, perhaps, to what were ever heard at a Roman amphitheatre." The author, however, having in part tamed this wild audience by his flattery, secured ultimately its absolute favour by humouring its prejudices after the grossest fashion. He brought upon the stage a figure "with black eyebrows, a ribbon of an ell long under his chin, a bag-peruke immoderately powdered, and his nose all bedaubed with snuff. What Englishman could not know a Frenchman by this ridiculous figure?" The Frenchman was presently shown to be, for all the lace down every seam of his coat, nothing but a cook, and then followed severe satire and criticism upon the manners and customs of France. "The excellence and virtues of English beef were extolled, and the author maintained that it was owing to the qualities of its juice that the English were so courageous and had such a solidity of understanding, which raised them above all the nations in Europe; he preferred the noble old English pudding beyond all the finest ragouts that ever were invented by the greatest geniuses that France ever produced." These "ingenious strokes" were loudly applauded by the audience, it seems, who, in their delight at the abuse lavished upon the French, forgot that they came to condemn the play and to uphold the ancient liberties of the stage. From that time forward, the Abbe states, "the law was executed without the least trouble; all the plays since have been quietly heard, and either succeeded or not according to their merits."
When Garrick visited Paris he declined to be introduced to the Abbe Le Blanc, "on account of the irreverence with which he had treated Shakespeare." There can, indeed, be no doubt that the Abbe, although he wrote amusing letters, was a very prejudiced person, and his evidence and opinions touching the English stage must be received with caution. So far as can be ascertained, especially by study of the "History of the Stage" (compiled by that industrious clergyman, Mr. Genest, from the playbills in the British Museum), but few new plays were produced in the course of the season immediately following the passing of the Licensing Act; certainly no new play can be found answering the description furnished by the Abbe with due regard to the period he has fixed for its production. Possibly he referred to the "Beaux' Stratagem," in which appear a French officer and an Irish-French priest, and which was certainly represented some few nights after the condemnation of Mr. Jacob's "Nest of Plays." Farquhar's comedy was then thirty years old, however. Nor has the Abbe done full justice to the public opposition offered to the Licensing Act. At the Haymarket Theatre a serious riot occurred in October, 1738, fifteen months after the passing of the measure. Closed against the English actors the theatre was opened by a French company, armed with a license from the Lord Chamberlain. A comedy, called "L'Embarras de Richesses," was announced for representation "by authority." The house was crowded immediately after the opening of the doors. But the audience soon gave evidence of their sentiments by singing in chorus "The Roast Beef of Old England." Then followed loud huzzas and general tumult. Deveil, one of the Justices of the Peace for Westminster, who was present, declared the proceedings to be riotous, and announced his intention to maintain the King's authority. He stated, further, that it was the King's command that the play should be acted, and that all offenders would be immediately secured by the guards in waiting. In opposition to the magistrate it was maintained "that the audience had a legal right to show their dislike to any play or actor; that the judicature of the pit had been acquiesced in, time immemorial; and as the present set of actors were to take their fate from the public, they were free to receive them as they pleased." When the curtain drew up the actors were discovered standing between two files of grenadiers, with their bayonets fixed and resting on their firelocks. This seeming endeavour to secure the success of French acting by the aid of British bayonets still more infuriated the audience. Even Justice Deveil thought it prudent to order the withdrawal of the military. The actors attempted to speak, but their voices were overborne by hisses, groans, and "not only catcalls, but all the various portable instruments that could make a disagreeable noise." A dance was next essayed; but even this had been provided against: showers of peas descended upon the stage, and "made capering very unsafe." The French and Spanish Ambassadors, with their ladies, who had occupied the stage-box, now withdrew, only to be insulted outside the theatre by the mob, who had cut the traces of their carriages. The curtain at last fell, and the attempt to present French plays at the Haymarket was abandoned, "the public being justly indignant that whilst an arbitrary Act suppressed native talent, foreign adventurers should be patronised and encouraged." It must be said, however, that the French actors suffered for sins not their own, and that the wrath of the public did not really reach the Lord Chamberlain, or effect any change in the Licensing Act.
For twenty years the Haymarket remained without a license of any endurance. The theatre was occasionally opened, however, for brief seasons, by special permission of the Chamberlain, or in defiance of his authority, many ingenious subterfuges being resorted to, so that the penalties imposed by the Act might be evaded. One of the advertisements ran—"At Cibber's Academy, in the Haymarket, will be a concert, after which will be exhibited (gratis) a rehearsal, in form of a play, called Romeo and Juliet." Macklin, the actor, opened the theatre in 1744, and under the pretence of instructing "unfledged performers" in "the science of acting," gave a variety of dramatic representations. It was expressly announced that no money would be taken at the doors, "nor any person admitted but by printed tickets, which will be delivered by Mr. Macklin, at his house in Bow Street, Covent Garden." At one of these performances Samuel Foote made his first appearance upon the stage, sustaining the part of Othello. Presently, Foote ventured to give upon the stage of the Haymarket, a monologue entertainment, called "Diversions of a Morning." At the instance of Lacy, however, one of the patentees of Drury Lane Theatre, whom Foote had satirised, the performance was soon prohibited. But Foote was not easily discouraged; and, by dint of wit and impudence, for some time baffled the authorities. He invited his friends to attend the theatre, at noon, and "drink a dish of chocolate with him." He promised that he would "endeavour to make the morning as diverting as possible;" and notified that "Sir Dilbury Diddle would be there, and Lady Betty Frisk had absolutely promised." Tickets, without which no person would be admitted, were to be obtained at George's Coffee House, Temple Bar. Some simple visitors, no doubt, expected that chocolate would be really served to them. But the majority were content with an announcement from the stage that, while chocolate was preparing, Mr. Foote would, with the permission of his friends, proceed with his instruction of certain pupils he was educating in the art of acting. Under this pretence a dramatic representation was really given, and repeated on some forty occasions. Then he grew bolder, and opened the theatre in the evening, at the request, as he stated, "of several persons who are desirous of spending an hour with Mr. Foote, but find the time inconvenient." Instead of chocolate in the morning, Mr. Foot's friends were therefore invited to drink "a dish of tea" with him at half-past six in the evening. By-and-by, his entertainment was slightly varied, and described as an Auction of Pictures. Eventually, Foote obtained from the Duke of Devonshire, the Lord Chamberlain, a permanent license for the theatre, and the Haymarket took rank as a regular and legal place of entertainment, to be open, however, only during the summer months. Upon Foote's decease, the theatre devolved upon George Colman, who obtained a continuance of the license.
The theatre in Goodman's Fields underwent experiences very similar to those of the Haymarket. Under the provisions of the Licensing Act its performances became liable to the charge of illegality. It was without a patent or a license. It was kept open professedly for concerts of vocal and instrumental music, divided into two parts. Between these parts dramatic performances were presented gratis. The obscurity of the theatre, combined with its remote position, probably protected it for some time from interference and suppression. But on the 19th October, 1741, at this unlicensed theatre, a gentleman, who, as the playbill of the night untruly stated, had never before appeared on any stage, undertook the part of Richard III. in Cibber's version of Shakespeare's tragedy. The gentleman's name was David Garrick. Had he failed the theatre might have lived on. But his success was fatal to it. The public went in crowds from all parts of the town to see the new actor. "From the polite ends of Westminster the most elegant company flocked to Goodman's Fields, insomuch that from Temple Bar the whole way was covered with a string of coaches." The patentees of Drury Lane and Covent Garden interfered, "alarmed at the deficiency of their own receipts," and invoked the aid of the Lord Chamberlain. The Goodman's Fields Theatre was closed, and Garrick was spirited away to Drury Lane, with a salary of 600 guineas a-year, a larger sum than had ever before been awarded to any performer.
It will be seen that the Chamberlain had deemed it his mission to limit, as much as possible, the number of places of theatrical entertainment in London. Playgoers were bidden to be content with Drury Lane and Covent Garden; it was not conceivable to the noblemen and commoners occupying the Houses of Parliament, or to the place-holders in the Chamberlain's office, or in the royal household, that other theatres could possibly be required.
Still attempts were occasionally made to establish additional places of entertainment. In 1785, John Palmer, the actor famous as the original Joseph Surface, laid the first stone of a new theatre, to be called the East London, or Royalty, in the neighbourhood of the old Goodman's Fields Theatre, which had been many years abandoned of the actors and converted into a goods warehouse. The building was completed in 1787. The opening representation was announced; when the proprietors of the patent theatres gave warning that any infringement of their privileges would be followed by the prosecution of Mr. Palmer and his company. The performances took place, nevertheless, but they were stated to be for the benefit of the London Hospital, and not, therefore, for "hire, gain, or reward;" so the actors avoided risk of commitment as rogues and vagabonds. But necessarily the enterprise ended in disaster. Palmer, his friends alleged, lost his whole fortune; it was shrewdly suspected, however, that he had, in truth, no fortune to lose. In any case he speedily retired from the new theatre. It was open for brief seasons with such exhibitions of music, dancing, and pantomime, as were held to be unaffected by the Act, and permissible under the license of the local magistrates. From time to time, however, the relentless patentees took proceedings against the actors. Delpini, the clown, was even committed to prison for exclaiming "Roast Beef!" in a Christmas pantomime. By uttering words without the accompaniment of music he had, it appeared, constituted himself an actor of a stage play.
Some five-and-twenty years later, Elliston was now memorialising the king, now petitioning the House of Commons and the Privy Council, in reference to the opening of an additional theatre. He had been in treaty for the Pantheon, in Oxford Street, and urged that "the intellectual community would be benefited by an extension of license for the regular drama." As lessee of the Royal Circus or Surrey Theatre, he besought liberty to exhibit and perform "all such entertainments of music and action as were commonly called pantomimes and ballets, together with operatic or musical pieces, accompanied with dialogue in the ordinary mode of dramatic representations," subject, at all times, to the control and restraint of the Lord Chamberlain, "in conformity to the laws by which theatres possessing those extensive privileges were regulated." But all was in vain. The king would not "notice any representation connected with the establishment of another theatre." The other petitions were without result.
Gradually, however, it became necessary for the authorities to recognise the fact that the public really did require more amusements of a theatrical kind than the privileged theatres could furnish. But the regular drama, it was held, must still be protected: performed only on the patent boards. So now "burletta licenses" were issued, under cover of which melodramas were presented, with entertainments of music and dancing, spectacle and pantomime. In 1809, the Lyceum or English Opera House, which for some years before had been licensed for music and dancing, was licensed for "musical dramatic entertainments and ballets of action." The Adelphi, then called the Sans Pareil Theatre, received a "burletta license" about the same time. In 1813 the Olympic was licensed for similar performances and for horsemanship; but it was for a while closed again by the Chamberlain's order, upon Elliston's attempt to call the theatre Little Drury Lane, and to represent upon its stage something more like the "regular drama" than had been previously essayed at a minor house. "Burletta licenses" were also granted for the St. James's in 1835, and for the Strand in 1836.
And, in despite of the authorities, theatres had been established on the Surrey side of the Thames; but, in truth, for the accommodation of the dwellers on the Middlesex shore. Under the Licensing Act, while the Chamberlain was constituted licenser of all new plays throughout Great Britain, his power to grant licenses for theatrical entertainments was confined within the city and liberties of Westminster, and wherever the sovereign might reside. The Surrey, the Coburg (afterwards the Victoria), Astley's, &c., were, therefore, out of his jurisdiction. There seemed, indeed, to be no law in existence under which they could be licensed. They affected to be open under a magistrate's license for "music, dancing, and public entertainments." But this, in truth, afforded them no protection when it was thought worth while to prosecute the managers for presenting dramatic exhibitions. For although an Act, passed in the 28th year of George III., enabled justices of the peace, under certain restrictions, to grant licenses for dramatic entertainments, their powers did not extend to within twenty miles of London. Lambeth was thus neutral ground, over which neither the Lord Chamberlain nor the country justices had any real authority, with this difficulty about the case—performances that could not be licensed could not be legalised.
The law continued in this unsatisfactory state till the passing, in 1843, of the Act for Regulating Theatres. This deprived the patent theatres of their monopoly of the "regular drama," in that it extended the Lord Chamberlain's power to grant licenses for the performance of stage plays to all theatres within the parliamentary boundaries of the City of London and Westminster, and of the Boroughs of Finsbury and Marylebone, the Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, and Southwark, and also "within those places where Her Majesty, her heirs and successors, shall, in their royal persons, occasionally reside;" it being fully understood that all the theatres then existing in London would receive forthwith the Chamberlain's license "to give stage plays in the fullest sense of the word;" to be taken to include, according to the terms of the Act, "every tragedy, comedy, farce, opera, burletta, interlude, melodrama, pantomime, or other entertainment of the stage, or any part thereof."
Thus, at last, more than a century after the passing of the Licensing Act, certain of its more mischievous restrictions were in effect repealed. A measure of free trade in theatres was established. The Lord Chamberlain was still to be "the lawful monarch of the stage," but in the future his rule was to be more constitutional, less absolute than it had been. The public were no longer to be confined to Drury Lane and Covent Garden in the winter, and the Haymarket in the summer. Actors were enabled, managers and public consenting, to personate Hamlet or Macbeth, or other heroes of the poetic stage, at Lambeth, Clerkenwell, or Shoreditch, anywhere indeed, without risk of committal to gaol. It was no longer necessary to call a play a "burletta," or to touch a note upon the piano, now and then, in the course of a performance, so as to justify its claim to be a musical entertainment; all subterfuges of this kind ceased.
It was with considerable reluctance, however, that the Chamberlain, in his character of Licenser of Playhouses, divested himself of the paternal authority he had so long exercised. He still clung to the notion that he was a far better judge of the requirements and desires of playgoers than they could possibly be themselves. He was strongly of opinion that the number of theatres was "sufficient for the theatrical wants of the metropolis." He could not allow that the matter should be regulated by the ordinary laws of supply and demand, or by any regard for the large annual increase of the population. Systematically he hindered all enterprise in the direction of new theatres. It was always doubtful whether his license would be granted, even after a new building had been completed. He decided that he must be guided by his own views of "the interests of the public." It is not clear that he possessed authority in this respect other than that derived from custom and the traditions of his office. The Act of 1843 contained no special provisions on the subject. But he insisted that all applicants for the licensing of new theatres should be armed with petitions in favour of the proposal, signed by many of the inhabitants in the immediate vicinity of the projected building; he 'required the Police Commissioners to verify the truth of these petitions, and to report whether inconvenience was likely to result in the way of interruption of traffic, or otherwise, from the establishment of a new theatre. Further, he obtained the opinion of the parish authorities, the churchwardens, &c., of the district; he was even suspected of taking counsel with the managers of neighbouring establishments; "in short, he endeavoured to convince himself generally that the grant of the license would satisfy a legitimate want"—or what the Chamberlain in his wisdom, or his unwisdom, held to be such.