THE PALMY DAYS OF NANCE OLDFIELD
I. FROM TAVERN TO THEATRE II. AN ENTRE-ACTE III. A BELLE OF METTLE IV. MANAGERIAL WICKEDNESS V. A DEAD HERO VI. IN TRAGIC PATHS VII. NANCE AT HOME VIII. THE MIMIC WORLD IX. "GRIEF A LA MODE" X. THE BARTON BOOTHS XI. THE FADING OF A STAR APPENDIX
Frontispiece: Mrs. Anne Oldfield
Title-page: Mrs. Oldfield in the Character of Fair Rosamond
Colley Cibber in the Character of Sir Novelty Fashion
Mrs. Anne Bracegirdle
Mrs. Bracegirdle as the "Sultaness"
Mrs. Anne Oldfield
Mr. Mills, Mrs. Porter, Mr. Cibber
Sir John Vanbrugh
Sir Richard Steele
THE PALMY DAYS OF NANCE OLDFIELD
FROM TAVERN TO THEATRE
"Out of question, you were born in a merry hour," says Don Pedro to the blithesome heroine of "Much Ado About Nothing."
"No, sure, my lord," answers Beatrice. "My mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born."
Surely a star, possibly Venus, must have danced gaily on a certain night in the year of grace 1683, when the wife of Captain Oldfield, gentleman by birth and Royal Guardsman by profession, brought into the busy, unfeeling world of London a pretty mite of a girl. 'Twas a year of grace indeed, for the little stranger happened to be none other than Anne Oldfield, whose elegance of manner, charm of voice and action and loveliness of face would in time make her the most delightful comedienne of her day. Perhaps she found no instant welcome, this diminutive maiden who came smiling into existence laden with a message from the sunshine; her father was richer in ancestry than guineas, and the arrival of another daughter may have seemed an honour hardly worth the bestowal.[A] But Thalia laughed, as well she might, and even the stern features of Melpomene relaxed a little in witnessing the birth of one who would prove almost as wondrous in tragedy, when she so minded, as she was fascinating in the gentler phases of her art.
[Footnote A: According to Edmund Bellchambers, Anne Oldfield "would have possessed a tolerable fortune, had not her father, a captain in the army, expended it at a very early period."]
Yet the laughter of Thalia and the unbending of her sister Muse were hardly likely to make much impression in the Oldfield household, where money had more admirers than mythology, and so we are not surprised to learn that, with the death of the gallant captain, this "incomparable sweet girl," who would ere long reconcile even a supercilious Frenchman to the English stage, had to seek her living as a seamstress. How she sewed a bodice or hemmed a petticoat we know not, nor do we care; it is far more interesting to be told that, though only in her early teens, the toiler with the needle found her greatest recreation in reading Beaumont and Fletcher's plays. The modern young woman, be her station high or low, would take no pleasure in such a literary occupation, but in the days of Nance Oldfield to con the pages of Beaumont and Fletcher was considered a privilege rather than a duty. Then, again, the little seamstress had a soul above threads and thimbles; her heart was with the players, and we can imagine her running off some idle afternoon to peep slyly into Drury Lane Theatre, or perhaps walk over into Lincoln's Inn Fields, where the noble Betterton and his companions had formed a rival company. The performance over, she hurries to the Mitre Tavern, in St. James's Market, and here she is sure of a warm welcome, as is but natural, since the Mrs. Voss who rules the destinies of the hostelry is Anne's elder sister[A]. Here the girl loves to spend those rare moments of leisure, reading aloud the comedies of long ago and dreaming of the future; and here, too, it is that dashing Captain Farquhar listens in amazement as she recites the "Scornful Lady."
[Footnote A: According to one authority Mrs. Voss was Anne's aunt. We adhere, however, to Dr. Doran's account of the relationship.]
George Farquhar—how his name conjures up a vision of all that is brilliant, rakish, and bibulous in the expiring days of the seventeenth century! It is easy to picture him, as he stands near the congenial bar of the tavern, entranced by the liquid tones and marvellous expression of Nance's youthful voice. He has a whimsical, good-humoured face, perhaps showing the rubicund effects of steady drinking (as whose features did not in those halcyon times of merry nights and tired mornings?), and a general air of loving the world and its pleasures, despite a secret suspicion that a hard-hearted bailiff may be lying in wait around the corner. His flowing wig may seem a trifle old, the embroidery on his once resplendent vest look sadly tarnished, and the cloth of his skirted coat exhibit the unmistakable symptoms of age, but, for all that, Captain Farquhar stands forth an honourable, high-spirited gentleman. And gentleman George Farquhar is both by birth and bearing. Was he not the son of genteel parents living in the North of Ireland, and did he not receive a polite education at the University in Dublin? So polite, indeed, has his training been that he is already the author of that wonderful "Love and a Bottle," a comedy wherein he amusingly holds the mirror up to English vices, including his own. And, speaking of vices, he can now look back to those salad days when he wrote verses of unimpeachable morality, setting forth, among other sentiments, that—
"The pliant Soul of erring Youth Is, like soft Wax, or moisten'd Clay, Apt to receive all heav'nly Truth, Or yield to Tyrant Ill the Sway. Shun Evil in your early Years, And Manhood may to Virtue rise; But he who, in his Youth, appears A Fool, in Age will ne'er be wise."
Poor fellow! He never will be wise in the material sense; he will trip gracefully through life with more brains and bonhomie than worldly discretion, yet eclipsing many steadier companions by writing the "Recruiting Officer" and other sparkling plays, not forgetting "The Inconstant," which will last even unto the end of the nineteenth century. At present—and 'tis the present rather than the past or future that most concerns the captain—he holds a commission in the army, which he is foolish enough to relinquish later on, and he has come to the very sensible conclusion that he is far more at home in the writing of comedies than the acting therein. For he has been on the stage, and precipitately retired therefrom after accidently wounding a fellow performer[A]. In the course of two or three years Farquhar will make a desperate attempt to be mercenary by marrying a girl whom he supposes to be wealthy; he will find out his mistake, and then, like the thoroughbred that he is, will go on cherishing her as though she had brought him a ton of rent-rolls. When he is dead and gone, Chetwood, the veteran prompter of Drury Lane, will tell us, quaintly enough, how "it was affirm'd, by some of his near Acquaintance, his unfortunate Marriage shortened his Days; for his Wife (by whom he had two Daughters), through the Reputation of a great Fortune, trick'd him into Matrimony. This was chiefly the Fault of her Love, which was so violent that she was resolved to use all Arts to gain him. Tho' some Husbands, in such a Case, would have proved mere Husbands, yet he was so much charm'd with her Love and Understanding, that he liv'd very happy with her. Therefore when I say an unfortunate Marriage, with other Circumstances, conducted to the shortening of his Days; I only mean that his Fortune, being too slender to support a Family, led him into a great many Cares and Inconveniences."
[Footnote A: Farquhar was playing in "The Indian Emperor" being cast for Guyomar, a character whose pleasant duty it is to kill Vasquez, the Spanish general. This particular Guyomar forgot to change his sword for a theatre foil, and in the subsequent encounter gave Vasquez too realistic a punishment].
No one would have appreciated the unconscious humour of Chetwood's assertion about "some husbands" more than Farquhar himself. One trembles to think, by the way what a "mere husband" must have been in the reigns of William or Anne.
In the meantime we are almost forgetting young Mistress Oldfield, who is still reading the "Scornful Lady," and putting new life and grace into lines which nowadays seem a bit academic and musty. The captain has not forgotten her, however; on the contrary, he is so charmed with what he hears that he makes some flimsy excuse to get into that room behind the bar whence the silvery voice proceeds. There he first meets Nance, surrounded by what audience we know not, and is struck dumb at the lovely figure standing out in bashful relief, as it were, against a background of wine bottles and ale tankards. There is an awkward pause, no doubt, and if the girl of fifteen comes to a sudden stop in her recital, Farquhar is no less embarrassed on his part.
The handsome, rosy face of a strapping tavern wench would not have startled him, but he was not gazing upon a bouncing serving maid or the hoydenish daughter of a prosperous innkeeper. He beheld a creature in all the gentle bloom of highbred beauty—tall, well-formed, and radiating a sort of natural elegance, with a fine-shaped, expressive face, to which great speaking eyes and a mouth half pensive, half smiling, lent an air of rare distinction. These were the eyes which in after years Anne would half close in a roguish way, as when, for instance, she meditated a brilliant stroke as Lady Betty Modish, and then, opening them defiantly, would make them glisten with the spirit of twinkling comedy. These were the eyes, too, which would shine forth such unutterable love when she played Cleopatra that one might well pardon the peccadilloes of poor Antony. But as yet there was no thought of drooping eyelids or amorous glances; all was natural, and nothing more so than the coyness of Nance upon seeing the author of "Love and a Bottle."
Captain Farquhar had never before beheld this seamstress from King Street, Westminster, but she must have been familiar with the handsome figure of one who had drunk many a brimming glass at the Mitre Tavern. Thus, when he made bold to praise her elocution, she was not offended, and, although she ignored his request to continue the "Scornful Lady," Anne proved sufficiently mistress of the interruption to astonish the intruder by her "discourse and sprightly wit." That innate breeding, of which no amount of poverty could deprive her, came to the surface, to show that a woman of quality is none the worse for a surprise. Farquhar, bowing low with a grace that made his faded clothes seem the pink of fashion, poured forth a torrent of flowery compliments, which became all the stronger when he heard that the girl knew Beaumont and Fletcher nearly by heart. She must have blushed, looking prettier than ever, as the visitor went on; and how that young heart did leap as he predicted for her a glorious future on the stage! The stage! the Ultima Thule of all her hopes! The very idea of acting filled her head with a thousand bewildering fancies, and, as she told Chetwood in after years, "I longed to be at it, and only wanted a little decent intreaties."
The decent intreaties were forthcoming. Nance's mother, who evidently rejoiced in a prophetic spirit not given to all parents, strongly agreed with Farquhar's opinion that the young lady should try a theatrical career, and the upshot of the whole episode was that Captain Vanbrugh took an interest in the newly-found jewel. This was a high honour. Vanbrugh had not yet made for himself a reputation as an architect by building Blenheim Castle for the Marlboroughs, nor had he changed his title of Captain for Sir John; but he was a great man, nevertheless, a successful dramatist and a boon companion of Christopher Rich, manager of Drury Lane. When the enthusiastic Farquhar sounded the praises of Anne Oldfield the future Sir John quickly repaired to the sign of the Mitre, with which, no doubt, he was already familiar, and met the young enchantress of that historic little room behind the bar. The arrival of this second and more distinguished captain was evidently the signal for a family council. We can see them all—Nance, glowing with excitement, her Brahmin-like, aristocratic beauty heightened by a dash of natural colour, quite different from the rouge she might use later; Mrs. Voss, sleepy, comfortable, and well pleased; and Mrs. Oldfield, full of importance and maternal solicitude. Vanbrugh, with his good-humoured smile and military bearing, talks in a fatherly way to the daughter, is deeply impressed with her many attractions, and is not sorry to learn that her ambition is all for comedy. He promises to use his good offices with Mr. Rich to have her enrolled as a member of the Drury Lane company, keeps his word, too—something for a gentleman to do in the year 1699—and soon has the satisfaction of seeing his new protegee hobnobbing with Mrs. Verbruggen, Wilks, Cibber, and other players of the house, while drawing fifteen shillings a week for the privilege.
To hobnob, receive a few shillings, and do next to nothing on the stage does not seem a glorious beginning for our heroine, but think of the inestimable luxury of brushing up against Colley Cibber. This remarkable man, who would be in turn actor, manager, playwright, and a pretty bad Poet Laureate before death would put an extinguisher on his prolific muses, had at first no exalted opinion of the newcomer's powers.
"In the year 1699," he writes in that immortal biography of his,[A] "Mrs. Oldfield was first taken into the house, where she remain'd about a twelvemonth, almost a mute and unheeded, 'till Sir John Vanbrugh, who first recommended her, gave her the part of Alinda in the 'Pilgrim' revis'd. This gentle character happily became that want of confidence which is inseparable from young beginners, who, without it, seldom arrive to any excellence. Notwithstanding, I own I was then so far deceiv'd in my opinion of her, that I thought she had little more in her person that appeared necessary to the forming a good actress; for she set out with so extraordinary a diffidence, that it kept her too despondingly down to a formal, plain, (not to say)flat manner of speaking."
[Footnote A: "An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber."]
How strange it seems, as we peer back behind the scenes of history, to think of a theatrical debutante rejoicing in an extraordinary diffidence. "Rather a cynical remark, isn't it?" the reader may ask. Well, perhaps it is, but these are piping times of advertising, when even genius has been known to employ a press agent.
Nance Oldfield may have been almost mute for a twelvemonth, yet more than a few feminine novices, Anno Domino 1898, would never be content to remain silent; not only must they make a noise behind the footlights, but they feel it incumbent to be heard in the newspapers as well. Any dramatic editor could tell a weary tale of the importunities of a progressive young lady who wants to enlighten an aching public at least six times a week as to the number of her dresses, the colour of her hair, and the attention of her admirers. There is a blessed consolation in all this: the female with the trousseau, the champagned locks and the notoriety lasts no longer than the butterfly, and her place is soon taken by the girl who never bothers about the paragraphs, because she is sure to get them.
To return to the more congenial subject of Oldfield, it is strange that so shrewd a Thespian as Cibber (who seems to have been clever in all things but poetry) was so long in coming to a real appreciation of her genius. He is manly enough to confess that not even the silvery tone of that honeyed voice could, "'till after some time incline my ear to any hope in her favour." "But public approbation," he tells us, "is the warm weather of a theatrical plant, which will soon bring it forward to whatever perfection nature has design'd it. However, Mrs. Oldfield (perhaps for want of fresh parts) seem'd to come but slowly forward 'till the year 1703." So slowly had she come forward indeed, that in 1702, Gildon, a now forgotten critic and dramatist, included her among the "meer Rubbish that ought to be swept off the stage with the Filth and Dust."[A] Time has avenged the actress for this slight; who, excepting the student of theatrical history, remembers Gildon?
[Footnote A: From the "Comparison Between the Two Stages."]
What is more to the purpose, Nance was able to avenge herself in the flesh, only a few months after these contemptuous lines had been penned. It happened at Bath, in the summer of 1703, and the story of her triumph, brief as it is, sounds quaint and pretty, as it comes down to us laden with a thousand suggestions of fashionable life in the reign of Queen Anne—a life made up of gossip and cards, drinking, gaming, patches and powder, fine clothes, full perriwigs and empty heads. What a picturesque lot of people there must have been at the great English spa that season, all anxious to get a glimpse of her plump majesty, who was staying there, and all willing enough to do anything except to test the waters or the baths from which the place first acquired fame. They were all there, the pretty maids and wrinkled matrons, the young rakes of twenty, ready for a frolic, and the old rakes of thirty too weary to do much more than go to the theatre and cry out, "Damme, this is a damn'd play." Then the children, who were always in the way, and the aged fathers of families who liked to swear at the dandified airs and newly imported French manners of their sons. And such sons as some of them were too—smart fellows, of whom the beau described in "The Careless Husband," may be taken as an example: one "that's just come to a small estate, and a great perriwig—he that sings himself among the women—he won't speak to a gentleman when a lord's in company. You always see him with a cane dangling at his button, his breast open, no gloves, one eye tuck'd under his hat, and a toothpick."
What of the belles of the Bath? They seem to have been much after the fashion of their modern sisters, with their harmless little vanities, their love of expensive finery, and their pretty eyes ever watching for the main chance, or a chance man. Odsbodkins! but the world has changed very little, for even then we hear of dashing specimens of the New Woman, in the persons of ladies who affected men's hats, feathers, coats, and perriwigs, to such an extent that our dear friend Addison will gently rebuke them during the reign of the Spectator. He doubts if this masculinity will "smite more effectually their male beholders," for how would the sweet creatures themselves be affected "should they meet a man on horseback, in his breeches and jack-boots, and at the same time dressed up in a commode[A] and a night raile?"
[Footnote A: A cumbersome head-dress made of lace or muslin.]
How charming it would have been to watch the whole gay crew, just as Addison and Steele must have done, and to feel, like these two delightful philosophers, that you were a little above the surroundings. Poor Dick Steele may not always have been above those surroundings; we can fancy him taking things comfortably in some tippling-house, red-faced, happy, and winey, but even the most puritanical of us will forgive him. Read, by the way, what he says of the Spa's morals[A]—"I found a sober, modest man was always looked upon by both sexes as a precise, unfashioned fellow of no life or spirit. It was ordinary for a man who had been drunk in good company, or.... to speak of it next day before women for whom he had the greatest respect. He was reproved, perhaps, with a blow of the fan, or an 'Oh, fy!' but the angry lady still preserved an apparent approbation in her countenance. He was called a strange, wicked fellow, a sad wretch; he shrugs his shoulders, swears, receives another blow, swears again he did not know he swore, and all was well. You might often see men game in the presence of women, and throw at once for more than they were worth, to recommend themselves as men of spirit. I found by long experience that the loosest principles and most abandoned behaviour carried all before them in pretentions to women of fortune."
[Footnote A: Spectator, No. 154. Steele is writing as Simon Honeycomb.]
Into this merry throng came Anne Oldfield during that never-to-be-forgotten summer—not, however, as an equal, but as an humble player of the troupe from Drury Lane. They had moved down from London, these happy-go-lucky Bohemians, as they were wont to do each season, among them being the ubiquitous Cibber, the gentlemanly Wilks, and that very talented vagabond, George Powell. Powell it was who liked his brandy not wisely but too well, and who made such passionate love on the stage that Sir John Vanbrugh used to wax nervous for the fate of the actresses. One great artiste was missing, however. Mrs. Verbruggen was ill in London, and that shining exponent of light comedy, who Cibber said was mistress of more variety of humour than he ever knew in any one actress, would never more tread those boards which were dearer to her than life.[A] Before she disappears for ever from these "Palmy Days" let us read a page or two about her from the graphic pictures in that famous "Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber":—
* * * * *
"As she was naturally a pleasant mimick, she had the skill to make that talent useful on the stage, a talent which may be surprising in a conversation, and yet be lost when brought to the theatre.... But where the elocution is round, distinct, voluble, and various, as Mrs. Montfort's was, the mimick there is a great assistant to the actor."
[Footnote A: A brief memoir of Mrs. Verbruggen and her first husband, handsome Will Mountford, will be found in "Echoes of the Playhouse."]
* * * * *
Which reminds one that more than a baker's dozen of modern comedians, so called, are nothing less than mimics. However, this is digressing, and so we continue:
"Nothing, tho' ever so barren, if within the bounds of nature, could be flat in her hands. She gave many heightening touches to characters but coldly written, and often made an author vain of his work that in itself had but little merit. She was so fond of humour, in what low part soever to be found, that she would make no scruple of defacing her fair form to come heartily into it;[A] for when she was eminent in several desirable characters of wit and humour in higher life, she would be in as much fancy when descending into the antiquated Abigail of Fletcher ('Scornful Lady') as when triumphing in all the airs and vain graces of a fine lady, a merit that few actresses care for. In a play of D'Urfey's, now forgotten, called the 'Western Lass,' which part she acted, she transformed her whole being, body, shape, voice, language, look, and features, into almost another animal, with a strong Devonshire dialect, a broad, laughing voice, a poking head, round shoulders, an unconceiving eye, and the most bediz'ning, dowdy dress that ever cover'd the untrain'd limbs of a Joan Trot. To have seen her here you would have thought it impossible the same creature could ever have been recover'd to what was as easy to her, the gay, the lively, and the desirable. Nor was her humour limited to her sex; for, while her shape permitted, she was a more adroit pretty fellow than is usually seen upon the stage. Her easy air, action, mien, and gesture quite chang'd, from the quoif to the cock'd hat and cavalier in fashion. People were so fond of seeing her a man, that when the part of Bays in the 'Rehearsal' had for some time lain dormant, she was desired to take it up, which I have seen her act with all the true coxcombly spirit and humour that the sufficiency of the character required."
[Footnote A: Davies, in his "Life of Garrick," says of Peg Woffington that "in Mrs. Day, in the 'Committee,' she made no scruple to disguise her beautiful countenance by drawing on it the lines of deformity and the wrinkles of old age, and to put on the tawdry habilaments and vulgar manners of an old hypocritical city vixen."]
Let us cry peace to her manes and then wander back to Mistress Oldfield, whom we have a very ungallant way of leaving from time to time.
Well, Verbruggen having been taken out of the dramatic lists "most of her parts," as Colley chronicles, "were, of course, to be disposed of, yet so earnest was the female scramble for them, that only one of them fell to the share of Mrs. Oldfield, that of Leonora in 'Sir Courtly Nice'; a character of good plain sense, but not over elegantly written."
A "female scramble" it must have been with a vengeance, as any one who knows aught of theatrical ambition will easily understand. The only really distinguished actress of the Drury Lane coterie hors de combat, and a bevy of feminine vultures of no particular pretension, anxiously waiting to dispose of her histrionic remains! Think of it, ye managers who have to subdue the passions and limit the extravagant hopes of your players, and pity poor, unfortunate Mr. Rich. Do you wonder that Nance only contrived to get the plain-spoken Leonora? The wonder of it is that she obtained any role whatsoever.
Let Cibber continue the story, while he frankly confesses that even he could form a false estimate of a colleague:
* * * * *
"It was in this part Mrs. Oldfield surpris'd me into an opinion of her having all the innate powers of a good actress, though they were yet but in the bloom of what they promis'd. Before she had acted this part I had so cold an expectation from her abilities, that she could scarce prevail with me to rehearse with her the scenes she was chiefly concerned in with Sir Courtly, which I then acted. However, we ran them over with a mutual inadvertency of one another. I seem'd careless, as concluding that any assistance I could give her would be to little or no purpose; and she mutter'd out her words in a sort of mifty manner at my low opinion of her. But when the play came to be acted, she had just occasion to triumph over the error of my judgment, by the (almost) amazement that her unexpected performance awak'd me to; so forward and sudden a step into nature I had never seen; and what made her performance more valuable was that I knew it all proceeded from her own understanding, untaught and unassisted by any one more experienced actor."
* * * * *
In the original text, Cibber, in pursuance of that old-fashioned method of capitalising every third or fourth word without any particular rhyme or reason, has spelled occasion with a big O. Well he might, for it was, perhaps, the most important occasion in all the eventful life of Oldfield. She would win many a more popular triumph in days to come, but what were all of them compared to the honour of having compelled the writer to admit that he had blundered.
"Though this part of Leonora in itself was of so little value, that when she got more into esteem it was one of the several she gave away to inferior actresses; yet it was the first (as I have observed) that corrected my judgment of her, and confirmed me in a strong belief that she could not fail in very little time of being what she was afterwards allow'd to be, the foremost ornament of our Theatre."
It takes but slight exercise of fancy to see inside the stuffy little theatre of Bath, on that memorable summer afternoon, when "Sir Courtly Nice"[A] is produced, with Cibber in the foppish title-role and the fair unknown as Leonora, "Belguard's sister, in love with Farewell." Her fat, peaceful, and phlegmatic Majesty, Anne Stuart, is in the royal box, perhaps (although she is far from being a playgoer), and with her retinue may be seen her dearest of friends, Sarah Churchill, now Duchess of Marlborough, and the most brilliant political Amazon of her time. How appropriate, by-the-way, that they should be together at the comedy. The whole intimacy of the two, gentle Sovereign and fiery subject, is nothing more or less than a curious play, wherein Anne takes the role of Queen (unwillingly enough, poor thing, for she was born to be bourgeoise) and the Duchess assumes the leading part. Unfortunate "Mrs. Morley"![B] You have a weary time of it, trying to act up to royalty when you would be so much happier as a middle-class housewife, and, perhaps, you have never been more bored than you are to-day in viewing "Sir Courtly Nice." Nor can the performance be as delightful as it might otherwise prove to her of Marlborough; 'tis but a few months since her son, the Marquis of Blandford, had ended in small-pox a career which promised to carry on the greatness of his house.
[Footnote A: "Sir Courtly Nice; or, It Cannot be," was from the pen of John Crown. In dedicating it to the Duke of Ormond, as can be seen in the original publication of the piece ("London, Printed by H.H. Jun. for R. Bently, in Russell street, Covent Garden, and Jos. Hindmarsh, at the Golden-Ball over against the Royal Exchange in Cornhill, MDCLXXXV"). The author says: "This comedy was Written by the Sacred Command of our late Most Excellent King, of ever blessed and beloved Memory (Charles II.). I had the great good fortune to please Him often at his Court in my Masque, on the Stage in Tragedies and Comedies, and so to advance myself in His good opinion; an Honour may render a wiser Man than I vain; for I believe he had more equals in extent of Dominion than of Understanding. The greatest pleasure he had from the Stage was in Comedy, and he often Commanded me to Write it, and lately gave me a Spanish Play called 'No' Puedeser Or, It Cannot Be' out of which I took part o' the Name and design o' this."]
[Footnote B: It is hardly necessary to remind the reader that in the private correspondence between Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough, the former signed herself "Mrs. Morley," while her friend masqueraded as "Mrs. Freeman."]
The comedy is about to begin as a common-looking person makes his appearance in the box. He is a dull, heavy fellow, who suggests nothing more strongly than a fondness for brown October ale and a good dinner into the bargain. Anne turns towards him with as affectionate a glance as she thinks it seeming to bestow in public. Is he not her husband, George of Denmark, and the father of all those children whom she never has succeeded in rearing to man's, or woman's, estate? He is a faithful consort, too, which is saying not a little in the days when Royal constancy, on the male side, is the rarest of jewels. George has vices, to be sure, but they belong to the stomach rather than the heart—that obese heart which, such as it is, the good Queen can call her own.
"Hath your Royal Highness ever seen this Cibber act?" asked the Duchess, by way of making conversation. She never stands on ceremony with soft-pated George, and does not wait to speak until she is spoken to.
"Cibber—Cibber—who be Cibber?" queries the Prince, a beery look in his eye, a foreign accent on his tongue.
"He's the son of the sculptor, Caius Gabriel Cibber, your Highness."
"I do not know—I do not know," mutters George drowsily. Then he falls asleep in the box, and snores so deeply that Manager Rich, who has been in the front of the house, pokes his inquisitive face into the poorly-lighted auditorium, and quickly pokes it back again.
But hush! Wake up, Prince, and look at the stage. The play has begun, and some member of the company, we know not who, has recited the archaic prologue, which asks:
"What are the Charmes, by which these happy Isles Hence gain'd Heaven's brightest and eternal smiles? What Nation upon Earth besides our own But by a loss like ours had been undone? Ten Ages scarce such Royal worths display As England lost, and found in one strange Day. One hour in sorrow and confusion hurld, And yet the next the envy of the World."
The King is dead! Long live the Queen! The prologue was written in honour of his most Catholic Majesty James II. and his consort, Marie Beatrice of Modena, but the opening lines are admirably adapted to flatter Anne, and so they are retained, even though what follows happens to be new.[A]
[Footnote A: The remainder of the original prologue, had it been recited, would have raised a storm.]
But what care we for the prologue when the first scene is on and Violante and Leonora are confessing their respective love affairs, as women always do—on the stage. Leonora has a dragon of a brother who would compel her to marry that pink of empty propriety, Sir Courtly, but she rebels against the admirer selected for her, as all well-bred young women should in plays, and sets her heart upon another. In consequence there is trouble of the dear old romantic kind.
"I never stir out, but as they say the Devil does, with chains and torments," Leonora tells Violante. "She that is my Hell at home is so abroad."
"Vio. A New Woman?
"LEO. No, an old Woman, or rather an old Devil; nay, worse than an old Devil, an old Maid.
"Vio. Oh, there's no Fiend so Envious.
"LEO. Right; she will no more let young People sin, than the Devil will let 'em be sav'd, out of envy to their happiness.
"Vio. Who is she?
"LEO. One of my own blood, an Aunt.
"Vio. I know her. She of thy blood? She has not a drop of it these twenty years; the Devil of envy sucked it all out, and let verjuice in the roome."
These lines are decidedly unfeminine and coarse, as viewed from a nineteenth century standard, and there is nothing in them to recommend the two girls to the particular favour of the audience. Yet, in the case of Leonora, they are given with such rare spirit, and the speaker, with her almost sensuous charm and the melody of that marvellous voice, is so fascinating, that the house is suddenly caught in some entrancing spell. Oldfield has burst upon it in all the sudden glory of a newly unfolded flower, and murmurs of admiration and surprise are heard on every side. More than this, Queen Anne, whose thoughts may have been far away with the dead Duke of Gloucester, betrays a sudden interest in the performance, and thus sets the fashion for all those around her, excepting his most sleepy Royal Highness, the Prince of Denmark. He dozes on; twenty angels from heaven would not disturb him.
As the play proceeds, the curiosity centres around the new Leonora, so that even the scene where Sir Courtly is found making the most elaborate of toilets, with the assistance of a bevy of vocalists, does not exert the attraction to be found in the presence of Oldfield. The episode is all very funny, of course, and there is an appreciative titter when the fop defines the characteristics of a gentleman:
"Complaisance, fine hands, a mouth well furnished—
"SERVANT. With fine language?
"SIR COURTLY. Fine teeth, you sot; fine language belongs to pedants and poor fellows that live by their wits. Men of quality are above wit. 'Tis true, for our diversion, sometimes we write, but we ne'er regard wit. I write, but I never write any wit.
"SERVANT. How then, sir?
"SIR COURTLY. I write like a gentleman, soft and easy."
It is only a titter, however, that Cibber can produce this afternoon, or evening,[A] nor does the audience take the usual relish in that touch-and-go rubbish of a duet sung by a supposed Indian and his love, a duet in which the former declares:
"My other Females all Yellow, fair or Black, To thy Charmes shall prostrate fall, As every kind of elephant does To the white Elephant Buitenacke. And thou alone shall have from me Jimminy, Gomminy, whee, whee, whee, The Gomminy, Jimminy, whee."
To which the lovely maiden answers:
"The great Jaw-waw that rules our Land, And pearly Indian sea Has not so absolute Command As thou hast over me, With a Jimminy, Gomminy, Gomminy, Jimminy, Jimminy, Gomminy, whee."
[Footnote A: Theatrical performances in this reign generally began at 5 p.m.]
When the play is over Nance can take a new part, that of a feminine conqueror. She has overshadowed Colley Cibber, who is more dazed than chagrined at the denouement, and she has proved more potent for the public amusement than all the beauties of "Jimminy, Gomminy," with its elephants, its jaw-waw, and its pearly Indian Sea. As she sits in the green-room, smiling in girlish triumph while she looks around at the beaux and players who crowd about her, anxious to worship the rising star, her eloquent glance falls on George Farquhar. There is a tear in his eye, but a radiant expression about the face. What does the Oldfield's success mean to the Captain? Perhaps Anne knows, as she throws him a tender recognition; perhaps she thinks of that song in "Sir Courtly Nice" which runs:
"Oh, be kind, my dear, be kind, Whilst our Loves and we are Young; We shall find, we shall find, Time will change the face or mind, Youth will not continue long. Oh, be kind, my dear, be kind."
While Anne Oldfield is resting from her first triumph and preparing for another, let us glance for a moment at the theatrical conditions which surround her. Curious, perplexing conditions they are, marking as they do a transition between the brilliant but generally filthy period of the Restoration—a period in which some of the worst and some of the best of plays saw the light—and the time when the punctilio and artificial decency of the age will cast over the stage the cold light of formality and restraint. The nation is but slowly recovering from the licentiousness which characterised the merry reign of Charles II., that witty, sceptical sovereign, who never believed in the honesty of man nor the virtue of frail woman. The playwrights are recovering too, yet, if anything, more tardily than the people; for when a nasty cynicism, like that pervading the old comedies, is once boldly cultivated, many a long day must elapse ere it can be replaced by a cleaner, healthier spirit.
Charles has surely had much to answer for at the bar of public opinion (a bar for which he evidently felt a profound contempt), and the evil influence which he and his Court exerted on the drama supplies one of the greatest blots on his moral 'scutcheon. Augustus William Schlegel, that foreigner who studied the literature of the English stage as few Britons have ever done, well pointed out that while the Puritans had brought Republican principles and religious zeal into public odium, this light-hearted monarch seemed expressly born to dispel all respect for the kingly dignity. "England was inundated with the foreign follies and vices in his train. The Court set the fashion of the most undisguised immorality, and this example was the more extensively contagious, as people imagined that they showed their zeal for the new order of things by an extravagant way of thinking and living. The fanaticism of the Republicans had been accompanied with true strictness of manners, and hence nothing appeared more convenient than to obtain the character of Royalists by the extravagant inclination for all lawful and unlawful pleasures.
"The age of Louis XIV. was nowhere imitated with greater depravity. The prevailing gallantry at the Court of France was not without reserve and tenderness of feeling; they sinned, if I may so speak, with some degree of dignity, and no man ventured to attack what was honourable, though his own actions might not exactly coincide with it. The English played a part which was altogether unnatural to them; they gave themselves heavily up to levity; they everywhere confounded the coarsest licentiousness with free mental vivacity, and did not perceive that the sort of grace which is still compatible with depravity, disappears with the last veil which it throws off."
As Schlegel goes on to say, we can easily imagine into what direction the tastes of the English people drifted under such auspices. "They possessed no real knowledge of the fine arts, and these were merely favoured like other foreign fashions and inventions of luxury. They neither felt a true want of poetry, nor had any relish for it; they merely wished to be entertained in a brilliant and light manner. The theatre, which in its former simplicity had attracted the spectators solely by the excellence of the dramatic works and the actors, was now furnished out with all the appendages with which we are at this day familiar; but what is gained in external decoration is lost in internal worth."
In other words, the theatrical life and literature of the Restoration was morally rotten to the core. How that rottenness has been giving way, during the childhood of Nance Oldfield, to what may be styled a comparative decency, need not be described here. Suffice it to explain that such a change is taking place, and let us accordingly sing, rejoice and give thanks for small mercies. Thalia has ceased to be a wanton; she is fast becoming quite a respectable young woman, and as to Melpomene—well, that severe Muse is actually waxing religious.
Religious? Yes, verily, for will not all good Londoners read in the course of a year or two that there will be a performance of "Hamlet" at Drury Lane "towards the defraying the charge of repairing and fitting up the chapel in Russell Court," said performance to be given "with singing by Mr. Hughes, and entertainment of dancing by Monsieur Cherier, Miss Lambro his scholar, and Mr. Evans. Boxes, 5s.; pit, 3s.; gallery, 2s.; upper gallery, 1s."
Here was an ideal union of church and stage with a vengeance, the one being served by the other, and the whole thing done to the secular accompaniment of singing and dancing. For an instant the town was scandalised, but Defoe, that perturbed spirit for whom there was no such word as rest, saw the humour of the situation.
"Hard times, gentlemen, hard times these are indeed with the Church," he informs the promoters of this ecclesiastical benefit, "to send her to the playhouse to gather pew-money. For shame, gentlemen! go to the Church and pay your money there, and never let the playhouse have such a claim to its establishment as to say the Church is beholden to her.... Can our Church be in danger? How is it possible? The whole nation is solicitous and at work for her safety and prosperity. The Parliament address, the Queen consults, the Ministry execute, the Armies fight, and all for the Church; but at home we have other heroes that act for the Church. Peggy Hughes sings, Monsieur Ramandon plays, Miss Santlow dances, Monsieur Cherier teaches, and all for the Church. Here's heavenly doings! here's harmony!"
"In short," concludes the author of "Robinson Crusoe," "the observations on this most preposterous piece of Church work are so many, they cannot come into the compass of this paper; but if the money raised here be employed to re-edify this chapel, I would have it, as is very frequent, in like cases, written over the door in capital letters: 'This church was re-edified anno 1706, at the expense and by the charitable contribution of the enemies of the reformation of our morals, and to the eternal scandal and most just reproach of the Church of England and the Protestant religion. Witness our hands,
"LUCIFER, Prince of Darkness, and Churchwardens."[A] HAMLET, Prince of Denmark,
[Footnote A: Review, June 20, 1706.]
The "enemies of the reformation of our morals!" Defoe used the expression satirically, but how well it suited the minds of many pious persons, ranging all the way from bishops to humble laymen, who could see nothing in the theatre excepting the prospective flames of the infernal regions. Clergymen preached against the playhouse then, just as some of them have done since, and will continue so to do until the arrival of the Millennium. Oftentimes the criticisms of these well-meaning gentlemen had more than a grain of truth to make them half justifiable. The stage was still far from pure, in spite of the improvement which was going on steadily enough, and there is no denying the fact that several of the worst plays of the Restoration could still claim admirers. Even "Sir Courtly Nice," wherein occurs one of the most indecent passages ever penned, and one of the most suggestive of songs, was received without a murmur. Congreve was pardoned for his breaches of decorum, and Dryden was looked upon as quite proper enough for all purposes.
The morale of the players could hardly be called unimpeachable, at least in some instances, but the violations of social rules were not so open as they had been in the old days. Here and there a frail actress might depart from the stony path of virtue, or an actor give himself up to wine and the dodging of bailiffs, yet the attending scandals were not flaunted in the face of the public. In other words, there were Thespians of doubtful reputation then, just as there are now, and these black sheep helped materially to keep up against their white brethren that remarkable prejudice which has endured even unto the present decade.
As a class, the players had no social position of any kind, although the great ones of the earth, the men of rank, never hesitated to hobnob with them when, like Mrs. Gamp, they felt "so dispoged." Even in the enlightened reign of Queen Anne, there existed among many intelligent persons the vague idea that one who trod the boards was nothing more or less than a vagabond, and we are not surprised to learn, therefore, that in a royal proclamation of the period, "players and mountebanks" are mentioned in the same sentence, as though there was little difference between them.
Perhaps, the "artists" to whom the title of vagabond might be applied with a certain degree of justice were the strolling players, who seem to have been much after the fashion of others of their ilk, before and since. Good-natured, poverty-stricken barnstormers they doubtless were, living from-hand-to-mouth, and quite willing to go through the whole gamut of tragedy, from Shakespeare to Dryden, for the sake of a good supper. Here is a graphic picture of such a band of dramatic ne'er-do-wells, drawn by Dick Steele in the forty-eighth issue of the Spectator:
"We have now at this place [this is a letter of an imaginary correspondent to 'Mr. Spectator'] a company of strollers, who are very far from offending in the impertinent splendor of the drama. They are so far from falling into these false gallantries, that the stage is here in his original situation of a cart. Alexander the Great was acted by a fellow in a paper cravat. The next day, the Earl of Essex seemd to have no distress but his poverty; and my Lord Foppington the same morning wanted any better means to show himself a fop than by wearing stockings of different colours.[A] In a word, though they have had a full barn for many days together, our itinerants are still so wretchedly poor, that without you can prevail to send us the furniture you forbid at the playhouse, the heroes appear only like sturdy beggars, and the heroines gypsies. We have had but one part which was performed and dressed with propriety, and that was Justice Clodpate. This was so well done, that it offended Mr. Justice Overdo, who, in the midst of our whole audience, was (like Quixote in the puppet show) so highly provoked, that he told them, if they would move compassion, it should be in their own persons and not in the characters of distressed princes and potentates. He told them, if they were so good at finding the way to people's hearts, they should do it at the end of bridges or church porches, in their proper vocation as beggars. This, the justice says, they must expect, since they could not be contented to act heathen warriors, and such fellows as Alexander, but must presume to make a mockery of one of the Quorum."
[Footnote A: It must be remembered that theatrical costumes, as we see them to-day, did not exist. The art of dressing correctly, according to the nature of the character and the period in which the play was supposed to occur, was practically unknown. Even in after years we hear of Spranger Barry playing Othello in a gold-laced scarlet suit, small cocked hat, and knee-breeches, with silk stockings. Think of it, ye sticklers for realism! Dr. Doran narrates how Garrick dressed Hamlet in a court suit of black coat, "waistcoat and knee-breeches, short wig with queue and bag, buckles in the shoes, ruffles at the wrists, and flowing ends of an ample cravat hanging over his chest." Barton Booth's costume for Cato was even more of an anachronism. "The Cato of Queen Anne's day wore a flowered gown and an ample wig."]
Poor strollers. There was a bit of stern philosophy in the advice of the justice, for they would probably have led a merrier and more luxurious life had they deserted the barns for the bridges and church-porches. Perhaps the same change would suit the wandering players who are to be found in these last years of the nineteenth century, travelling from one third-class hotel to another, and wondering whether they will ever make enough money to return home and sun themselves on the New York Rialto.
Humble as they were in the time of Queen Anne, her Government saw fit to subject the strollers to what might be called police regulation, and the Master of the Revels, who was a censor of plays and a supervisor-in-general of theatrical matters, had to issue an imposing order setting forth that whereas "several Companies of Strolling Actors pretend to have Licenses from Noblemen,[A] and presume under that pretence to avoid the Master of the Revels, his Correcting their Plays, Drolls, Farces, and Interludes: which being against Her Majesty's Intentions and Directions to the said Master: These are to signifie That such Licenses are not of any Force or authority. There are likewise several Mountebanks Acting upon Stages, and Mountbanks on Horseback, Persons that keep Poppets, and others that make Shew of Monsters, and strange Sights of Living Creatures, who presume to Travel without the said Master of the Revels' Licence," &c. &c. The whole pronunciamento went to show that the despised strollers were not beneath the notice of a lynx-eyed Government.
[Footnote A: A survival of the days when noblemen often had their own companies of actors, and were empowered to regulate the performances of these dramatic servants.]
It is curious that the functionary to whom was assigned the important critical duty of revising plays should also be obliged to concern himself with the doings of puppets and country "side shows." Yet before the law there was very little if any difference between a performance of "Hamlet" by the great Betterton, and an exhibition of the marital infelicities of Punch and Judy. Are matters so much better now that we can afford to laugh at the incongruity? Do not theatres devoted to the "legitimate" and dime museums, the homes of triple-pated men, human corkscrews and other intellectual freaks, come under the same police supervision, and rank one and all within the same classification as "places of amusement?" Nay, to go further and fare worse, do not some of these very freaks regard themselves as fellow-workers in the dramatic vineyard made so fertile through the toil of a Booth, a Mansfield or a Terry? The writer has himself heard the manipulator of a marionette troupe (whose wife, by-the-way, posed in a curio hall as a "Babylonian Princess") speak of Sir Henry Irving as "a brother professional."
This complacent individual had his prototype during the very period which we are considering. He was an artistic gentleman named Crawley, the happy manager of a puppet show which used to bring joy into the hearts of the merry people thronging the famous Bartholomew Fair. One fine day, as the manager was standing outside of his booth, he was put into a flutter of excitement by the approach of the mighty Betterton, in company with a country friend. The actor offered several shillings for himself and rustic as they were about to enter the show, but this was too much for Crawley. He saw the chance of his life, and took advantage of it. "No, no, sir," he said to "Old Thomas," with quite the patronising air of an equal, "we never take money of one another!" Betterton did not see the matter in the same light, and, indignantly throwing down the silver, stalked into the booth without so much as thanking the proprietor of the puppets.
What a Bedlam of a place Bartholomew must have been, with its noise, its gew-gaws, bad beer, cheap shows, and riotous visitors. Ned Ward, to whose descriptions modern readers are indebted, partly through the aid of John Ashton,[A] for many a glimpse of old-time London life, has left us a vivid picture of the fair as it appeared to him. The entrance to it, he says, was like unto a "Belfegor's concert," with its "rumbling of drums, mixed with the intolerable squalling of catcalls and penny trumpets." Nor could the sense of smell have been much better catered to than that of hearing, owing to the "singeing of pigs and burnt crackling of over-roasted pork." Once within the enclosure he saw all sorts of remarkable things, including the actors, "strutting round their balconies in their tinsey robes and golden leather buskins;" the rope-dancers, and the dirty eating-places, where "cooks stood dripping at their doors, like their roasted swine's flesh." Ward also looked on at several comedies, or "droles," being enacted in the grounds, and, after coming to the conclusion that they were like "State fireworks," and "never do anybody good but those that are concerned in the show," he repaired to a dancing booth. Here he had the privilege of watching a woman "dance with glasses full of liquor upon the backs of her hands, to which she gave variety of motions, without spilling."
[Footnote A: See Ashton's "Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne."]
All this may have a curious interest, but it looks a trifle inconsistent, does it not, to lament the unjustness of connecting puppet entertainments and the like with the stage, and then deliberately devote space to the mysteries of Bartholomew Fair? It is more to the purpose to speak of the two theatres which claimed the attention of London playgoers in the year 1703—the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the house in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Of the two, Drury Lane was the more important in an historical sense, having been the house of the famous "King's Company," as the players of Charles II. were styled, and then of the combined forces formed in 1682 by the union of this organisation and the "Duke of York's Company." This was the house into which Nance Oldfield came as a modest debutante. It had been built from the designs of Wren, to replace the old theatre destroyed by fire in 1672.
Cibber has sketched for us the second Drury Lane's interior, as it appeared in its original form, before the making of changes intended to enlarge the seating capacity. "It must be observed then, that the area or platform of the old stage projected about four feet forwarder (sic), in a semi-oval figure, parallel to the benches of the pit; and that the former lower doors of entrance for the actors were brought down between the two foremost (and then only) pilasters; in the place of which doors now the two stage boxes are fixt. That where the doors of entrance now are, there formerly stood two additional side-wings, in front to a full set of scenes, which had then almost a double effect in their loftiness and magnificence.
"By this original form, the usual station of the actors, in almost every scene, was advanc'd at least ten foot nearer to the audience than they now can be; because, not only from the stage's being shorten'd in front, but likewise from the additional interposition of those stage boxes, the actors (in respect to the spectators that fill them) are kept so much more backward from the main audience than they us'd to be. But when the actors were in possession of that forwarder space to advance upon, the voice was then more in the centre of the house, so that the most distant ear had scarce the least doubt or difficulty in hearing what fell from the weakest utterance. All objects were thus drawn nearer to the sense; every painted scene was stronger; every grand scene and dance more extended; every rich or fine-coloured habit had a more lively lustre. Nor was the minutest motion of a feature (properly changing from the passion or humour it suited) ever lost, as they frequently must be in the obscurity of too great a distance. And how valuable an advantage the facility of hearing distinctly is to every well-acted scene, every common spectator is a judge. A voice scarce raised above the tone of a whisper, either in tenderness, resignation, innocent distress, or jealousy suppress'd, often have as much concern with the heart as the most clamorous passions; and when on any of these occasions such affecting speeches are plainly heard, or lost, how wide is the difference from the great or little satisfaction received from them? To all this the master of a company may say, I now receive ten pounds more than could have been taken formerly in every full house. Not unlikely. But might not his house be oftener full if the auditors were oftener pleas'd? Might not every bad house, too, by a possibility of being made every day better, add as much to one side of his account as it could take from the other."
The latter portion of Colley's remarks will be echoed by our own audiences, which are so often doomed to see the most delicate of plays acted in barns of theatres where all the sensitive effects of dialogue and action are swallowed up in the immensity of stage and auditorium. There is nothing more dispiriting, indeed, both to performers and spectators, than the presentation of some comedy like the "School for Scandal" in a house far better suited to the picturesque demands of the "Black Crook" or the "County Circus."
The theatre in Drury Lane, as Oldfield knew it, had a not over-cheerful interior, the most noticeable features of which included the pit, provided with backless benches, and surrounded by what would now be called the Promenade. The latter, as Misson informs us,[A] was taken up for the most part by ladies of quality. In addition to these quarters and the boxes, there were two galleries reserved for the common herd, but into which, no doubt, impecunious beaux, down in the heels and at the mouth, would frequently stray.
[Footnote A: Henre Misson's "Memoirs and Observations in his Travels over England."]
The performances generally began at 5 o'clock, but that there were occasional lapses into unpunctuality, may be inferred from the following advertisement in the Daily Courant of October 5, 1703:
"Her Majesty's Servants of the Theatre Royal being return'd from the Bath, do intend, to-morrow, being Wednesday, the sixth of this instant October to act a Comedy call'd 'Love Makes a Man, or the Fop's Fortune.'[A] With singing and dancing. And whereas the audiences have been incommoded by the Plays usually beginning too late, the Company of the said Theatre do therefore give notice that they will constantly begin at Five a Clock without fail, and continue the same Hour all the Winter."[B]
[Footnote A: One of Cibber's earlier plays.]
[Footnote B: Quoted in "Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne."]
To the fin de siecle playgoer the idea of beginning a performance at so strange an hour seems nothing short of startling, until it be remembered that people of quality were then wont to dine between three and four o'clock of the afternoon. How they spent the earlier portion of the day is not hard to relate. The men of fashion rose tardily, feeling none the better, as a rule, for a night at club or tavern, and then lounged about as best they could, visiting, sauntering in the Mall,[A] or otherwise trying to pass the time until dinner. This solid meal over they were ready for the theatre, where they occasionally arrived in a state of unpleasant exhilaration, damning the play, ogling the women and making themselves as obnoxious as possible to the unfortunates who cared more for the stage than the commonplace audience.
[Footnote A: "It seem'd to me as if the World was turn'd top-side turvy; for the ladies look'd like undaunted heroes, fit for government or battle, and the gentlemen like a parcel of fawning, flattering fops, that could bear cuckoldom with patience, make a jest of an affront, and swear themselves very faithful and humble servants to the petticoat; creeping and cringing in dishonor to themselves, to what was decreed by Heaven their inferiours; as if their education had been amongst monkeys, who (as it is said) in all cases give the preeminence to their females."—"The Mall as described by Ned Ward."]
And the women: what of them? They played cards, often for highly respectable(?) stakes, or went to the theatre when there was nothing better to do, and frittered away the greater number of the twenty-four hours in a mode that the fashionable woman of 1898 would consider positively scandalous. Sometimes the dear creatures went for a stroll in the Mall, there to meet the English coxcombs with French manners, or else they paid a few visits.
"Thus they take a sip of tea, then for a draught or two of scandal to digest it, next let it be ratafia, or any other favourite liquor, scandal must be the after draught to make it sit easy on their stomach, till the half hour's past, and they have disburthen'd themselves of their secrets, and take coach for some other place to collect new matter for defamation."[A]
[Footnote A: Thomas Brown.]
Drury Lane must have presented an animated but none the less disorderly scene any evening during the season when a popular play was to be given. Women in the boxes talking away for dear life, beaux walking about the house, chattering, ogling and laughing, or even sitting on the stage while the performance was in progress,[A] and the orange girls running around to sell their wares and, not infrequently, their own souls as well.
[Footnote A: Owing in great part to the efforts of Queen Anne, this wretched custom of allowing a few spectators to sit on the stage was practically abolished before the close of the reign.]
"Now turn, and see where loaden with her freight, A damsel stands, and orange-wench is hight; See! how her charge hangs dangling by the rim, See! how the balls blush o'er the basket-brim; But little those she minds, the cunning belle Has other fish to fry, and other fruit to sell; See! how she whispers yonder youthful peer, See! how he smiles and lends a greedy ear. At length 'tis done, the note o'er orange wrapt Has reach'd the box, and lays in lady's lap."
These lines by Nicholas Rowe form a graphic but unsavoury picture of the demoralisation to be found in an early eighteenth century audience. Affairs were much better than they used to be in the laissez-faire Restoration period, but, as may be imagined, there was still room for improvement. The rake, the cynic and the loosely-moraled women were still abroad in the land (have we quite done with them even yet?), and many a hard struggle would take place before the artificial restraint and decorum of the Georgian era would triumph over the mocking spirit of Charles Stuart and his professional idlers. In the meantime, as Shadwell relates, the rakes "live as much by their wits as ever; and to avoid the clinking dun of a boxkeeper, at the end of one act they sneak to the opposite side 'till the end of another; then call the boxkeeper saucy rascal, ridicule the poet, laugh at the actors, march to the opera, and spunge away the rest of the evening." And he goes on to say that "the women of the town take their places in the pit with their wonted assurance. The middle gallery is fill'd with the middle part of the city, and your high exalted galleries are grac'd with handsome footmen, that wear their master's linen."[A]
[Footnote A: The footmen were sometimes sent, early in the afternoon, to keep places in the theatre until their masters or mistresses should arrive. They created so much disturbance, however, that a stop had to be put to the practice, and the servants were relegated to the upper gallery. To this they were given free admission.]
And now for a few pages about Drury Lane's rival, the theatre within the walls of the old tennis court in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was the home of the company headed by the noble Betterton, the "English Roscius," who had, in 1695, headed the revolt against the management of the other house. At that time the tide of popular success at Drury Lane had reached a rather low ebb, a painful circumstance due, no doubt, to the fickleness of a public that was beginning to tire of the favourite players and to betray a fondness for operatic and spectacular productions rather than the "legitimate." Christopher Rich, the manager of the theatre, was, like many of his kind, more given to considering the weight of his purse than the scant supply of sentiment with which nature might originally have endowed him, and so he tried to do two characteristic things. The salaries of his faithful employes should be reduced and the older members of the company retired into the background as much as possible. Younger faces must occupy the centre of the stage; even Betterton, the greatest actor of his time, should be supplanted in some of his parts by the dissolute George Powell, and the genius of Mrs. Barry,[A] whom Dryden thought the greatest actress he had ever seen, was to give way to the less matured charms of the lovely Anne Bracegirdle.
[Footnote A: Mrs. Barry is said to have been a very elegant dresser; but, like most of her contemporaries, she was not a very correct one. Thus, in the "Unhappy Favourite," she played Queen Elizabeth, and in the scene of the crowning she wore the coronation robes of James II.'s Queen; and Ewell says she gave the audience a strong idea of the first-named Queen.—DORAN'S "Annals of the Stage."]
Cibber relates the story in a sympathetic vein. "Though the success of the 'Prophetess' and 'King Arthur' (two dramatic operas in which the patentees[A] had embark'd all their hopes) was in appearance very great, yet their whole receipts did not so far balance their expense as to keep them out of a large debt, which it was publicly known was about this time contracted.... Every branch of the theatrical trade had been sacrificed to the necessary fitting out those tall ships of burthen that were to bring home the Indies. Plays of course were neglected, actors held cheap, and slightly dress'd, while singers and dancers were better paid, and embroider'd. These measures, of course, created murmurings on one side, and ill-humour and contempt on the other."
[Footnote A: Alexander Davenant, Charles Killigrew, and Rich.]
"When it became necessary therefore to lessen the charge, a resolution was taken to begin with the salaries of the actors; and what seem'd to make this resolution more necessary at this time was the loss of Nokes, Montfort and Leigh, who all dy'd about the same year. No wonder then, if when these great pillars were at once remov'd the building grew weaker and the audiences very much abated. Now in this distress, what more natural remedy could be found than to incite and encourage (tho' with some hazard) the industry of the surviving actors? But the patentees, it seems, thought the surer way was to bring down their pay in proportion to the fall of their audiences. To make this project more feasible they propos'd to begin at the head of 'em, rightly judging that if the principals acquiesc'd, their inferiors would murmur in vain.
"To bring this about with a better grace, they, under pretence of bringing younger actors forward, order'd several of Betterton's and Mrs. Barry's chief parts to be given to young Powel and Mrs. Bracegirdle. In this they committed two palpable errors; for while the best actors are in health, and still on the stage, the public is always apt to be out of humour when those of a lower class pretend to stand in their places."
And with a bit more of this timely philosophy—to which, let it be hoped, he ever lived up to himself—Colley goes on to say that, "tho' the giddy head of Powel accepted the parts of Betterton, Mrs. Bracegirdle had a different way of thinking, and desir'd to be excused from those of Mrs. Barry; her good sense was not to be misled by the insidious favour of the patentees; she knew the stage was wide enough for her success, without entering into any such rash and invidious competition with Mrs. Barry, and, therefore, wholly refus'd acting any part that properly belong'd to her."
Then came the revolt, which the astute Betterton ("a cunning old fox" Gildon once dubbed him) seems to have managed with all the diplomacy of a Machiavelli. "Betterton upon this drew into his party most of the valuable actors, who, to secure their unity, enter'd with him into a sort of association to stand or fall together." In the meantime he pushed the war into Africa, or, to change the simile, determined to lead his people out of the land of bondage, as exemplified by Drury Lane, and settle down in a new theatre. Nay, the "cunning old fox" even went so far as to secure an interview with his most august sovereign, William of Orange. What an audience it must have been, with William, stiff, uncomfortable, and unintentionally repellant, confronted by the greatest of living "Hamlets" and a group of other players made brilliant by the presence of the imperial but not too moral Mistress Barry, the lovely Bracegirdle, breathing the perfume of virtue, real or assumed, and the fascinating Verbruggen.[A] Perhaps the King found them an interesting lot, perhaps he merely regarded them with the same good-natured curiosity he might have exhibited for a pack of mountebanks, but in either case he was determined, with that sombre seriousness so typical of him, to do his duty in the premises. So he listened patiently to their complaints, and the result of it all was that by the advice of the Earl of Dorset, the Lord Chamberlain, a royal licence, allowing the revolters to act in a separate theatre, was duly issued. A subscription for the erection of the new house was immediately opened, people of quality paid in anywhere from twenty to forty guineas a piece, and the whole affair assumed permanent shape. Poor, tired, pre-occupied William had done what was expected of him, lifting his eyes for the nonce from the real world, as represented by the map of Europe, to gaze upon his subjects of the mimic boards.
[Footnote A: Mrs. Verbruggen and Joseph Williams seceded from the new company almost at once.]
"My having been a witness of this unnecessary rupture," writes Cibber, "was of great use to me when, many years after, I came to be a menager myself. I laid it down as a settled maxim, that no company could flourish while the chief actors and the undertakers were at variance. I therefore made it a point while it was possible upon tolerable terms, to keep the valuable actors in humour with their station; and tho' I was as jealous of their encroachments as any of my co-partners could be, I always guarded against the least warmth in any expostulations with them; not but at the same time they might see I was perhaps more determin'd in the question than those that gave a loose to their resentment, and when they were cool were as apt to recede."
Colley was shrewd enough in dealing with players, and, as any one who has ever had aught to do with them knows, the majority of Thespians must be treated with the greatest tact. They are sensitive and high-strung, yet often as unreasonable as children, and the man who can rule over them with ease should be snapped up by an appreciative government to conduct its most diplomatic of missions. With the theatrical stars of his own day Cibber seems to have been firm but prudent. "I do not remember," he tells us, "that ever I made a promise to any that I did not keep, and, therefore, was cautious how I made them." A fine sentiment, dear sir, eminently fit for a copy book, but we can well believe that your promises never erred on the side of extravagance.
It is a fascinating subject, this study of old-time stage life—fascinating, at least for the writer, who is tempted to run on garrulously, describing the doings of Betterton in the new theatre, and then wandering off to speak of the establishment of Italian opera in England. But the limits of the chapter are reached; let us bid good-bye to "Old Thomas," whose
"Setting sun still shoots a glimmering ray, Like ancient Rome, majestic in decay,"
and hasten to worship the rising sun, in the person of Mistress Oldfield.
A BELLE OF METTLE
"For let me tell you, gentlemen, courage is the whole mystery of making love, and of more use than conduct is in war; for the bravest fellow in Europe may beat his brains out against the stubborn walls of a town—but
"Women born to be controll'd, Stoop to the forward and the bold."
These lines, taken hap-hazard from Colley Cibber's "Careless Husband," contain the very spirit and essence of that old English comedy wherein the hero was nothing more than a handsome rake and the heroine—well, not a straitlaced Puritan or a prude. They breathe of the time when honesty and virtue went for naught upon the stage, and the greatest honours were awarded to the theatrical Prince Charming who proved more unscrupulous than his fellows. Yet, strange as it may seem, the "Careless Husband" is a vast improvement, in point of decency, on many of the plays that preceded it, and marks a turning point in the moral atmosphere of those that came after. "He who now reads it for the first time," says Doran, "may be surprised to hear that in this comedy a really serious and eminently successful attempt to reform the licentiousness of the drama was made by one who had been himself a great offender. Nevertheless the fact remains. In Lord Morelove we have the first lover in English comedy, since licentiousness possessed it, who is at once a gentleman and an honest man. In Lady Easy we have what was hitherto unknown or laughed at—a virtuous married woman." To go further, it may be added that the story points an unexceptionable moral, proving that the best thing for a husband to do in this world is to be true to the legitimate companion of his joys and sorrows.
With all this in favour of the "Careless Husband," it is a curious fact that the play, if presented in its original form, would not be tolerated by the audiences of to-day.[A] The dialogue is often coarse and suggestive, although for the most part full of sparkle and mother wit, while the plot smacks of intrigue, lying and adultery. But it is a fine work for all that; there is a delightful flavour about it, as of old wine, and we feel in reading each successive scene that we are uncorking a rare literary bottle of the vintage 1704. How much of the vintage of 1898 will stand, equally well, the uncorking process if applied in a century or two from now? How many plays in vogue at present will be read with pleasure at that distant period? Will they be the gruesome affairs of Ibsen, still tainted with their putrid air of unhealthy mentality, or the clever performances of Henry Arthur Jones; the dramas of Bronson Howard or the farcical skits of Mr. Hoyt?
[Footnote A: Were the "Careless Husband" adapted to suit the exacting requirements of nineteenth century modesty, its brilliancy would be gone.]
The "Careless Husband" has not been acted these many, many years, yet to all who treasure the historical memories of the stage it should be recalled with interest, for it was in this gay comedy that the ravishing Nance shone forth in all the silvery light of her resplendent genius. Read the pages of the old play in unsympathetic mood and they may look musty and worm-eaten, but imagine Oldfield as the sprightly Lady Betty Modish, the elegant Wilks as Sir Charles Easy, and Cibber[A] himself in the empty-headed role of Lord Foppington, and, presto! everything is changed. The yellow leaves are white and fresh, the words stand out clear and distinct, and it takes but a slight flight of fancy to hear the dingy auditorium of Drury Lane echoing and re-echoing with laughter. For 'twas at Drury Lane that the comedy first saw the light, in December 1704, and this was the cast:
LORD MORELOVE .... Mr. Powell. LORD FOPPINGTON .... Mr. Cibber. SIR CHARLES EASY .... Mr. Wilks. LADY BETTY MODISE .... Mrs. Oldfield. LADY EASY .... Mrs. Knight. LADY GRAVEAIRS .... Mrs. Moore. MRS. EDGING .... Mrs. Lucas.
[Footnote A: Wilks had a singular talent in representing the graces of nature; Cibber the deformity in the affectation of them.—STEELE.]
How the performance came about let Cibber explain. The "Apologist" has been speaking of Oldfield's success in Leonora, and he goes on to say:
"Upon this unexpected sally, then, of the power and disposition of so unforseen an actress, it was that I again took up the first two acts of the 'Careless Husband,' which I had written the summer before, and had thrown aside in despair of having justice done to the character of Lady Betty Modish by any one woman then among us; Mrs. Verbruggen being now in a very declining state of health, and Mrs. Bracegirdle out of my reach and engag'd in another company: But, as I have said, Mrs. Oldfield having thrown out such new proffers of a genius, I was no longer at a loss for support; my doubts were dispell'd and I had now a new call to finish it."
And finish the play Cibber did, casting Nance for the volatile Lady Betty and producing it under the most brilliant auspices. The whole assignment of characters was admirable, but the first Lady Betty, bursting upon the town in sudden glory, threw all her companions into the shade. Never had such a fine lady of comedy been seen, said the critics; never had an actress (who was not expected to be over-versed in the affairs of the "quality") displayed such gentility, high-breeding and evidence of being—Heaven knew how—quite "to the manner born." Never was woman so bubbling over with humour, said the people. As for Colley, he was delighted, of course, but believing that an honest confession is good for the soul, even for the soul of a Poet Laureate, he has left us the following graceful tribute to the important part played by the actress in making the "Careless Husband" a success:
"Whatever favourable reception this comedy has met with from the Publick, it would be unjust in me not to place a large share of it to the account of Mrs. Oldfield; not only from the uncommon excellence of her action, but even from her personal manner of conversing. There are many sentiments in the character of Lady Betty Modish that I may almost say were originally her own, or only dress'd with a little more care than when they negligently fell from her lively humour."
Here we have a clue to that vivacity and naivete which distinguished Anne off the stage as well as on. Can it be that she, rather than Cibber, suggested this dashing bit of dialogue from the comedy:
* * * * *
"LADY BETTY. [Meeting LADY EASY.] Oh! my dear! I am overjoyed to see you! I am strangely happy to-day; I have just received my new scarf from London, and you are most critically come to give me your opinion of it.
"LADY EASY. O! your servant, madame, I am a very indifferent judge, you know: what, is it with sleeves?
"LADY BETTY. O! 'tis impossible to tell you what it is! 'Tis all extravagance both in mode and fancy, my dear; I believe there's six thousand yards of edging in it—then such an enchanting slope from the elbow—something so new, so lively, so noble, so coquet and charming—but you shall see it, my dear.
"LADY EASY. Indeed I won't, my dear; I am resolv'd to mortify you for being so wrongfully fond of a trifle.
"LADY BETTY. Nay, now, my dear, you are ill-natured.
"LADY EASY. Why truly, I am half angry to see a woman of your sense so warmly concerned in the care of her outside; for when we have taken our best pains about it, 'tis the beauty of the mind alone that gives us lasting value.
"LADY BETTY. Oh! my dear! my dear! you have been a married woman to a fine purpose indeed, that know so little of the taste of mankind. Take my word, a new fashion upon a fine woman is often a greater proof of her value than you are aware of.
"LADY EASY. That I can't comprehend; for you see, among the men, nothing's more ridiculous than a new fashion. Those of the first sense are always the last that come into' em.
"LADY BETTY. That is, because the only merit of a man is his sense; but doubtless the greatest value of a woman is her beauty; an homely woman at the head of a fashion, would not be allowed in it by the men, and consequently not followed by the women; so that to be successful in one's fancy is an evident sign of one's being admir'd, and I always take admiration for the best proof of beauty, as beauty certainly is the source of power, as power in all creatures is the height of happiness.
"LADY EASY. At this rate you would rather be thought beautiful than good.
"LADY BETTY. As I had rather command than obey. The wisest homely woman can't make a man of sense of a fool, but the veryest fool of a beauty shall make an ass of a statesman; so that, in short, I can't see a woman of spirit has any business in this world but to dress—and make the men like her.
"LADY EASY. Do you suppose this is a principle the men of sense will admire you for?
"LADY BETTY. I do suppose that when I suffer any man to like my person, he shan't dare to find fault with my principle.
"LADY EASY. But men of sense are not so easilly humbled.
"LADY BETTY. The easiest of any. One has ten thousand times the trouble with a coxcomb....The men of sense, my dear, make the best fools in the world: their sincerity and good breeding throws them so entirely into one's power, and gives one such an agreeable thirst of using them ill, to show that power—'tis impossible not to quench it."
* * * * *
Compare this bristling dialogue with the inane stuff that too often passes for comedy nowadays, and one finds all the difference between real humour and flippancy. We stand at the threshold of the twentieth century, boastfully proclaiming that we do everything better than ever could our ancestors, yet where are the new comedies that might hold a candle to the "Careless Husband," the "Inconstant," or the "School for Scandal?" We may be presumptuous enough, nevertheless, to hold up that much-quoted candle, but the light from it will burn pale and dim when placed near the golden glow of the past. Would that we could purify some of the old-time pieces and thus preserve them for future generations of theatre-goers. Alas! that is impossible, for to cleanse them with a sort of moral soap and water would destroy nearly all their delightful glitter.
The lines of Lady Betty must have fairly sizzled with the fire of comedy as they fell from the pretty lips of Oldfield. No wonder that Londoners thought the character bewitching; no wonder that Cibber wrote so enthusiastically of the actress in that wonderful Apology. "Had her birth plac'd her in a higher rank of life," he notes, perhaps forgetting that her very descent entitled the poor sewing-girl to a position which poverty denied her, "she had certainly appear'd in reality what in this play she only excellently acted, an agreeably gay woman of quality a little too conscious of her natural attractions. I have often seen her in private societies where women of the best rank might have borr'd some part of her behaviour without the least diminution of their sense or dignity. And this very morning, when I am now writing at the Bath, November 11, 1738, the same words were said of her by a lady of condition, whose better judgment of her personal merit in that light has embolden'd me to repeat them."
The best of us have a wee bit of snobbishness buried deep in the inmost recesses of our souls, and Colley, who was neither the best nor the worst of humanity, had this quality well developed. To see that one has but to read the above quotation between the lines. He loved a lord as ardently as did the next man, and he attached to rank the same exaggerated importance which pervades, with all the unwelcome odour of sickening incense, the literature of his age. As Macklin so well said of him, Nature formed Cibber for a coxcomb, and it is quite probable that he took greater delight in being thought a leader of fashion than a writer of charming plays. Indeed, he was careful to cultivate the society of young noblemen, and this he was able to do by virtue of his theatrical successes, and, more helpful still, by a levity of character which stuck to him despite his great earnestness in many directions. Perhaps his frivolity and his love of pleasure, including the delights of the gaming table, may have been half assumed; perhaps he was only playing one of his many parts. He certainly succeeded in the role; he enlivened the dissipations of many a beau by his quaint conceits and flashes of humour, and went on his way rejoicing that he could be the boon companion of twenty idle lords.[A]
[Footnote A: Colley Cibber, one of the earliest of the dramatic autobiographers, is also one of the most amusing. He flourished in wig and embroidery, player, poet, and manager, during the Augustan age of Queen Anne, somewhat earlier and somewhat later. A most egregious fop, according to all accounts, he was, but a very pleasant one notwithstanding, as your fop of parts is apt to be. Pope gained but little in the warfare he waged with him, for this plain reason—that the great poet accuses his adversary of dullness, which was not by any means one of his sins, instead of selecting one of the numerous faults, such as pertness, petulance, and presumption, of which he was really guilty.—M.R. Mitford.]
If he was surprised, therefore, that Oldfield could act the high-born woman of fashion, the "lady of condition," who shall blame him? A tavern does not seem the proper school for deportment, and, though one has the bluest blood in Christendom, humble surroundings may keep it from flowing very freely. Still, Anne was naturally a thoroughbred; the girl had a personal distinction which was hers by right of inheritance, and what she lacked in elegance she was quick to acquire as she grew into womanhood.
It is a strange coincidence that the actress who in after years rejuvenated Lady Betty[A], and made her again a living, breathing creature, had at one period of her career been a tavern girl. Abington it was who seemed the very incarnation of aristocracy, and made the audience forget that, high as she stood upon the stage, she had once been almost in the gutter.
[Footnote A: Mrs. Abington, one of the most graceful and spirited actresses of the eighteenth century, was born in 1731, shortly after the death of Oldfield. She had the honour of being the original Lady Teazle, a part which she rehearsed under the direction of Sheridan, and she enjoyed the further distinction of being detested by Garrick. The latter said of her: "She is below the thought of any honest man or woman."]
The same welcome anomaly is noticed now, when the actresses who play the women of the "hupper circles" with the greatest delicacy and keenness of touch are frequently the products of the lower or middle class. On the other hand, the dame de societe who trips lightly from the drawing-room to the stage, amid the blare of trumpets and the excitement of her friends, usually fails to make a mark. To be sure, several of them have made marks—very black ones.
Now let us turn the pages of the "Careless Husband," as we scan them in Lowndes's "British Theatre," and see if we cannot extract some amusement therefrom. The scene opens in the lodgings of Sir Charles Easy, who, like many other dramatic personages of the eighteenth century, has a name that signifies his character. Easy, Sir Charles is in every sense of the word, particularly easy as to morals, for the possession of a lovely wife does not prevent him from prosecuting an amour with a woman of quality, Lady Graveairs, or having a vulgar intrigue with the maid of his own spouse. In fine, he is a right amiable gentleman, according to the curious standards of long ago; a very prince of good fellows, who in these days would pass for a cad.
We are hardly begun with the comedy before we are introduced to this paragon, who enters just after Lady Easy and the maid, Edging, have discovered fresh proofs of his flirtation with Lady Graveairs. Charles is inclined to be philosophical in a blase, tired way, and he says: "How like children do we judge of happiness! When I was stinted in my fortune almost everything was a pleasure to me, because most things then being out of my reach, I had always the pleasure of hoping for 'em; now fortune's in my hand she's as insipid as an old acquaintance. It's mighty silly, faith, just the same thing by my wife, too; I am told she's extremely handsome [as though the sad devil didn't know it], nay, and have heard a great many people say she is certainly the best woman in the world—why, I don't know but she may, yet I could never find that her person or good qualities gave me any concern. In my eye, the woman has no more charms than my mother"—and we may be sure that Sir Charles had never bothered himself much about the attractions of the last named lady.
Then the fair Edging comes to centre of stage and the following innocent dialogue ensues:
* * * * *
"EDGING. Hum—he takes no notice of me yet—I'll let him see I can take as little notice of him. [She walks by him gravely, he turns her about and holds her; she struggles.] Pray, sir!
"SIR CHARLES. A pretty pert air that—I'll humour it—what's the matter, child—are you not well? Kiss me, hussy.
"EDGING. No, the deuce fetch me if I do. [Here was a model servant, of course.]
"SIR CHARLES. Has anything put thee out of humour, love?
"EDGING. No, sir, 'tis not worthy my being out of humour at ... don't you suffer my lady to huff me every day as if I were her dog, or had no more concern with you—I declare I won't bear it and she shan't think to huff me. For aught I know I am as agreeable as she; and though she dares not take any notice of your baseness to her, you shan't think to use me so—"
* * * * *
But enough of this delectable conversation. The picture which it gives us is unpleasant and coarse; there is about it none of the glitter that can make vice so alluring. We will also skip an interview between Sir Charles and Lady Easy (who thinks it the part of diplomacy to hide her knowledge of her master's peccadilloes), and hurry on to the entrance of Lord Morelove, our hero. Morelove, who must have been admirably played by the fiery, impetuous Powell, is neither a libertine, nor, on the other hand, a prig; he is simply a gentlemanly and essentially human fellow who is consumed with an honest passion for Lady Betty Modish. Nay, he would be glad to marry the fine creature, but she has quarrelled with him and he is now telling Sir Charles all about it:
* * * * *
"So, disputing with her about the conduct of women, I took the liberty to tell her how far I thought she err'd in hers; she told me I was rude and that she would never believe any man could love a woman that thought her in the wrong in anything she had a mind to [Rather exacting, are you not, Lady Betty?], at least if he dared to tell her so. This provok'd me into her whole character, with as much spite and civil malice, as I have seen her bestow upon a woman of true beauty, when the men first toasted her:[A] so in the middle of my wisdom, she told me she desir'd to be alone, that I would take my odious proud heart along with me and trouble her no more. I bow'd very low, and as I left the room I vow'd I never wou'd, and that my proud heart should never be humbled by the outside of a fine woman. About an hour after, I whipp'd into my chaise for London, and have never seen her since."
[Footnote A: Many of the wits of the last age will assert that the word (toast), in its present sense, was known among them in their youth, and had its rise from an accident at the town of Bath, in the reign of Charles II. It happened that, on a public day, a celebrated beauty of those times was in the Cross Bath, and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of the water in which the fair one stood, and drank her health to the company. There was in the place a gay fellow half fuddled, who offered to jump in, and swore, though he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast. He was opposed in his resolution; yet this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in our liquors, who has ever since been called a Toast.—The Tatler.]
* * * * *
What a quaint, circumspect and very ceremonious affair must that lovers' row have been. No swearing, no slang or loud talking, but everything deliberate and in the best of form. Lady Betty telling Morelove to go about his business, and that quickly, but doing so with a stately elegance worthy of the great Mrs. Barry; the suitor bowing low, with his white hand pressed against that "odious proud heart" which is gently breaking at the thought of departing. What a nice painting it would make for a Watteau fan.
Thus nearly all our characters have their entrances, Lady Betty is revealed to us through the medium of the lively dialogue quoted a few pages back, and then there is another stir. In comes Lord Foppington, otherwise Colley Cibber, in all the vapid glory of fine clothes, and a great periwig. A very prince of coxcombs, with his soft smile and conscious air of superiority—a mere bag of vanity, whose emptiness is partly hidden by gorgeous raiment, gold embroidery, rings, snuff-box, muff and what-not. With what genteel condescension does he greet Sir Charles; how gracefully nonchalant is he to my Lord Morelove. "My dear agreeable! Que je t'embrasse! Pardi! Il y a cent ans que je ne t'ai veu. My lord, I am your lordship's most obedient humble servant."
So Foppington takes his place in the comedy, and begins to play his brainless but important part. He, the disconsolate Morelove, and the brilliant Lady Betty all meet at dinner with Sir Charles and Lady Easy. Of course the hero makes an unsuccessful attempt to regain the good graces of his inamorata, and, of course, the coxcomb carries on a violent flirtation with her in the angry face of his rival. With the meal over, and everybody on the qui vive, this scene ensues:
* * * * *
Enter Foppington (who has been chatting to the ladies and who now seeks the post-dinner conversation of his host and Lord Morelove).
"FOPPINGTON. Nay, pr'ythee, Sir Charles, let's have a little of thee. We have been so chagrin without thee, that, stop my breath [what a bloodcurdling oath, so suggestive of the awful curses of our own jeunesse d'oree], the ladies are gone, half asleep, to church for want of thy company.
"SIR CHARLES. That's hard indeed, while your lordship was among 'em. Is Lady Betty gone too?
"FOP. She was just upon the wing. But I caught her by the snuff-box, and she pretends to stay to see if I'll give it her again or no.
"MORE. Death! 'tis that I gave her, and the only present she ever would receive from me. [Aside to SIR CHARLES.] Ask him how he came by it?
"SIR CHARLES. Pr'ythee don't be uneasy. Did she give it to you, my lord?
"FOP. Faith, Charles, I can't say she did or she did not, but we were playing the fool, and I took it—a la—pshah—I can't tell thee in French, neither, but Horace touches it to a nicety—'twas Pignas direptum male pertinaci. [Nota Bene: Our modern comedians seldom quote Horace; their humour is not of the classic kind.]