THE English theatre had a great fascination for foreigners. Many of them give long accounts of the plays they witnessed and of the actors and actresses.
The chief and indeed, for many years, the only two licensed theatres in London, besides the Opera House in the Haymarket, were Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Other plays, unlicensed by the Lord Chamberlain, were performed in taverns, in Assembly Rooms or even in private houses. Plays in these places would be termed rehearsals and the tickets for them could be bought at some neighbouring shop or inn.
"There are three very noble theatres here" says Macky; "that of the opera at the end of Pall Mall or the Haymarket is the finest I ever saw . . . the parterre, commonly called the pit containing the gentlemen on benches, and on the first stage of boxes it is the ladies of quality, in the second the citizens wives and daughters and in the third the common people and footmen."
Seats in this upper gallery cost a shilling and the footmen who sat there had been at the theatre from the time it opened keeping seats in the boxes until their mistresses arrived. They did not dare look out from these or they would have been pelted with rotten oranges. Foreigners noted with surprised disapprobation the uproar that was permitted in the shilling seats. When an Englishman had paid that sum he considered himself the equal, if not the superior, of the pit and boxes. He would even throw glasses of water on the heads of the gentlemen beneath him. Kielmansegg found that the audience would not wait even for the King, and insisted upon the performance beginning. When he arrived the gallery booed and hissed and shouted "lower lower" as they did not consider his bow sufficiently pronounced. Kielmansegg saw the Queen Dowager make one of the young princes bow lower by forcibly pushing his head forward. The King looked at his watch and shook his head, which placated the gallery, who then broke out into cheers. In no other country in the world could there have been such a scene. Rude and boorish though such conduct was, it typified the English sense of independence and equality, the "Jack's as good as his master" tradition which was still to be found among what were then called the lower orders. The gallery would also, when opportunity offered, express its opinion of any unpopular person. Von Uffenbach tells us how he went to see The Recruiting Officer and how in one of the intervals a troop of soldiers came on the stage singing a song of the army in Flanders about the Duke of Marlborough. It praised Prince Eugene, but the Duke was much censured for his meanness. This song was sung with enthusiasm by the audience,
"Who" von Uffenbach tells us "bandied about monstrous insults although Marlborough's daughter, the Duchess of Montagu, was herself at the play, and was so greatly shamed that she was covered with blushes."
As Dr. Johnson wrote of Garrick:
The dramas laws, the drama patrons give,
For we that live to please must please to live.
Sometimes the gallery proceeded to violence if anything happened to displease it. Casanova describes how the audience wrecked Drury Lane because a piece had been substituted for the one advertised. On another occasion, when this had occurred, Garrick appeared before the curtain to apologize.
"A voice from the pit shouted 'on your knees', a thousand voices took up the cry 'on your knees'. Roscius was obliged to kneel and ask forgiveness. Then came a thunder of applause and everything was over."
"In this island" says Lichtenberg "at the time that the additional tax was laid upon porter the King's ears were saluted in the theatre with all the indecent freedom of expression which the utmost bitterness of resentment could suggest to a haughty people."
It may seem to us extraordinary that in an age when the divine right of kings was still being preached and the power of the monarch was very great, such scenes could take place. One cannot imagine them occurring under the last of the Stuarts. Something of the glamour and romance of kings had departed or perhaps was being slowly extinguished at St. Germains. The Whigs, backed by a majority of the people, had brought over the Hanoverians and could, if they pleased, send them packing. They were now their servants and as such were beginning to bow to their will.
When Zetzner went to the theatre in 1700, he was horrified at the price of seats. As much as 12s. was asked for a side box, and 10s. for one facing the stage, the pit was 2s. 6d. and the gallery 1s. It is interesting to notice that these prices for pit and gallery were the same in the earlier years of this century.
There were long intervals between the acts. It took longer to shift scenery in those days and the audience filled in the time by taking refreshment. Women walked about the house selling apples and oranges, beer and strong waters were passed round. It was possible, too, to obtain more substantial provisions. Casanova gave the four friends, who accompanied him, a fine meal consisting of oysters, hare, larks, ortolans, truffles and sweetmeats with champagne and liqueurs. According to him this repast cost ten guineas; but Casanova's statements about money, as about other things, are frequently exaggerated.
The comments of foreign travellers about our plays and actors differ widely and are interesting. The French, though they liked our comedies and farces, considered our tragedies coarse and bloodthirsty and complained that we had no great playwrights. Macky, however, praises our historical plays and says that
"One Shakespeare, who lived in the last century, laid down a masterly foundation for this in his excellent plays, and the late Mr. Addison hath improved that taste in his admirable Cato."
Grosley on the other hand was distinctly shocked
"At the representations of Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear and other pieces of Shakespeare which I happened to be a spectator of, whatever the most barbarous cruelty and the most refined wickedness can possibly conceive is presented to view."
Meister merely complains that Shakespeare had been so altered and cut about that
"not one of his pieces is represented on the stage as he wrote it. There are some so disguised as not to be discoverable for his writing."
This was indeed the truth. Even Garrick did not venture to present the Bard in his original form. An age which had accepted Wycherley now drew the line at the grossness of Shakespeare. Kemble wished to eliminate the ghost from Macbeth, but Meister tells us that he was afraid to do it as the gallery would have stopped the performance and called out for the ghost.
"None of his" (Shakespeare's) "tragedies" Meister continues "have caused so many tears to be shed as I have seen drop at the representation of Jane Shore, Venice Preserved, the Grecian Daughters or the Gamester. . . Poets of talent perhaps far inferior to his have better understood the secret of touching our feelings or beguiling us of our tears."
Count Kielmansegg dismisses the Tragedy of Richard III, Cibber's version, as "quite in the English tragic style, very bloody". He also saw Henry VIII and King Lear. The latter he considered
"very much in the style of the old English plays . . . in which most of the characters go mad, get blind or die".
Voltaire described Shakespeare's tragedies as "monstrous farces ", but thought that if he had lived in Addison's day he "might have written a play as good as Cato".
Pastor Moritz on the other hand declared that Shakespeare was the greatest genius nature ever produced, and Meister said that
"Macbeth is productive of the greatest degree of wonder and astonishment".
On the whole, however, foreigners did not think much of Shakespeare. Frenchmen compared him unfavourably with Corneille and Racine, and Germans preferred some of their own turgid dramatists, whose names are now forgotten.
As for lighter plays they found it
"difficult to reconcile the general moral conduct for which these people are renowned with the great immorality and indecency of their comedies".
They were particularly shocked by The Beggar's Opera, but this play had profoundly shocked the English themselves. De Saussure did not think it "at all refined or witty". On the whole he preferred the pantomime which Rich produced at a cost of £4,000. This was Orpheus in the Lower Regions.
"There was a serpent" de Saussure tells us "of enormous size; covered all over with green and gold scales; his eyes shine like fire and he wriggles about the theatre with head upraised, making an awful, but very natural hissing noise. This so frightened a grenadier stationed near the stage, that he dropped his musket, drew his sword and tried to kill the reptile."
Actors and Actresses
When Voltaire came to England he was delighted to find the status of actors and actresses very different from what it was in France. There the body of Adrienne Lecouvreur had been thrown out upon a Paris dunghill, here in London Nance Oldfield was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, with peers for her pall-bearers. The enthusiasm for great actors and actresses was widespread. There was, of course, the Puritan element which regarded the theatre as the abode of iniquity and the performers as rogues and vagabonds. In the early days of the century plays were often so gross that reputable women, if they went to the theatre at all, went there masked. Public taste improved, however, and demanded a certain amount of decency on the stage. When Sheridan adapted Vanbrugh's comedy The Relapse he omitted most of his grossness with possibly some of his wit and the Trip to Scarborough offended no one. Ladies no longer wore masks at the theatre; according to Zetzner the only women to do this were prostitutes; a clergyman even had been known to go there, though he did not go "openly in his habit" as Swift described it. Garrick was received everywhere, and Mrs. Siddons was adored.
Sophie de la Roche tells us how a gentleman at a party had said that he paid Mrs. Siddons a visit and found her
"at her sick child's cot, rocking it with her foot, and holding another at her breast with her role in her hand."
The company was so affected by this tale
"that" says Sophie "it wants to publish an engraved portrait of this estimable lady in this position without alteration."
The foreigner had very little but praise for the great English actors. Lichtenberg gives a detailed and laudatory account of Garrick and tells us that "he moves to and fro among the players like a man among marionettes". Mrs. Barry he considers to be the only English actress who could compare with him. Speaking of her performance as Cordelia, he says
"it still provides a feast for my imagination, which will live in my memory till my dying day".
"Having seen the English Melpomene (Mrs. Siddons) I think" Meister says "I have seen for the first time the tragic muse in all the dignity of the buskin, with all the majesty of her sceptre, and encircled with all her fascinating charms. . . .I saw Lady Macbeth or Calista or Belvedera or Jane Shore or Volumnia by turns before me, I heard them speak without noticing their language whether mine or their own . . . they spoke a language which my heart perfectly understood."
He was not so enthusiastic about other English actresses. Mrs. Pope he describes as "a precise old woman", Mrs. Powell wanted feeling and dignity, Mrs. Elston he admits was young and handsome,
"but her talents", he adds unkindly, "are younger than her face and perhaps may ever continue so". Mrs. Jordan "possessed a deal of witchcraft, enough to fascinate the Duke of Clarence".
Count Kielmansegg, however, praises the good allround quality of English acting.
"In general" he says "the English theatre has the advantage of a good caste for every piece and the faces of the actors look as if they were cut out for the parts they represent."
If London provided few theatres, there were other entertainments. First and foremost there were the pleasure gardens. Taverns and inns on the outskirts of the town had their gardens with lawns and ornamental shrubs. Many had ponds and fountains, some had dancing on the grass or in an adjacent ballroom, or bands playing music among the trees. The largest and most famous of these gardens were those of Ranelagh and Vauxhall, and foreigners were generally taken to see them. Grosley thought that these were
"finer in appearance than the Houses of Parliament, Courts of justice or the King's Palace".
Of Ranelagh he says,
"Imagine to yourself the salon, amphitheatre and boxes all fitted with company and on the ground floor a multitude of persons walking in every direction, the murmurings of the crowd drowned by a continuous symphony, the whole illuminated with a milder gleam than that of the day. There were few objects more striking."
This salon was the Rotunda where concerts and ridottos were held. The charge for the ridottos, which were assemblies for dancing and music, was a guinea; but the entrance to the Gardens was only a shilling, or half a crown if refreshments were included. Count Kielmansegg, who was always talking about prices and comparing ours unfavourably with those of the Continent, was really pleased about this. You could consume as much tea and bread and butter as you liked, he said. He noted, too, with equal surprise and less approval, that everyone was equal at Ranelagh and Vauxhall, no distinction was made between classes and he had not got to take off his hat to the Duke of York when he passed him. Of Vauxhall he says,
"The garden" (he visited it by day) "must be a wonderful sight when the greater part of it is lighted up with nearly 1,500 glass lamps. At one end of an avenue, when a curtain is withdrawn, a landscape is to be seen, illuminated by hidden lamps, the principal feature being a miller's house with an artificial cascade, you fancy that you see water driving the mill and that you hear the rush of it, though in reality there is none. It is arranged just as these things are arranged in theatres and pantomimes."
Moritz saw there
"A picture of the surrender of a besieged city, which affects you so much that you even shed tears ".
He describes Ranelagh Gardens, which were the more fashionable of the two, as "poor and mean looking and ill lighted" but is enthusiastic about the Rotunda,
"the splendour and beauty of which surpassed everything of the kind I had ever seen before. I felt pretty nearly the same sensations that I remember to have felt when in early youth I first read the Fairy Tales."
The company, he tells us, was more select than at Vauxhall, the expense "nothing near so great, and no one without silk stockings", which must have been very gratifying.
Vauxhall and Ranelagh
According to Mme de Bocage such places of amusement as Ranelagh and Vauxhall were unknown in France.
"There are here" she says "entertainments of which we have no idea. I do not mean horse-races, cockfights or combats of prize-fighters; I leave it to men to describe those shocking amusements, and shall dwell upon more pleasing subjects, such as the gardens of Vauxhall which are to be seen upon the delightful banks of the Thames . . .Persons of all ranks and ages come in a negligent dress from all quarters to soothe their cares by innocent amusement. The French look upon it as a phenomenon that there should be so much order and so profound a silence in the midst of such a multitude whilst, with us, the smallest assembly occasions a stunning noise."
On Ranelagh where
"winter passed unnoticed owing to the furnace with four fronts the heat of which penetrated without being excessive",
Mme de Bocage breaks into verse:
Muse, charmer of my leisure hours,
Paint to the French those blissful bowers
Where joy and peace and gay desire
In just proportions still conspire
And, more to elevate each heart
To nature add the charms of art
A thousand instruments around
In jocund concert there resound
And fast beside a limpid stream
Unnumbered lamps diffuse a gleam
And though a thousand storms arise
With varied pleasure feast our eyes
To paint to each succeeding race
The charms of this delightful place
Thy architecture now displays The grandeur of Rome's ancient days
.. .. ..
To all the gifts this land affords
Adds China tea to crown their boards.
Mrs. Cornelys kept what seems to have been a glorified night club at her house in Soho Square and foreigners, who had a taste for that sort of thing, often went there. She was said to have had a turnover of £24,000 but her expenses were enormous. Casanova went to one of her assemblies and describes her large hall as being magnificent and seating 400 people. There was a dance which lasted all night, and "the waste and prodigality were worthy of a prince's palace".
The receipts for this entertainment were, Casanova tells us, as much as 1,200 guineas, but Theresa's prosperity was short lived. Scandals were whispered about her, and what was more detrimental, the Pantheon was opened and proved a greater attraction. Mrs. Cornelys got into debt, was imprisoned in the Fleet and finally came down to selling asses' milk in Knightsbridge.
A more disreputable place of entertainment was the Royal Diversion or Folly. This was a building on the banks of the Thames, half tavern, half brothel, where such exhibitions as sword-dancing might be witnessed.
"All manner of wine can be drunk here" von Uffenbach tells us, "but it sells prodigious dear."
He goes on to describe a female sword-dancer who
"took two sharp swords between her breasts, two in her eyes and three with the points of her mouth, holding them with her teeth. She twirled round with great rapidity on a barrel for a good half hour. This is a wild and dangerous English fashion of diversion" he adds.
Von Uffenbach had a discreet and frugal mind; de Saussure, who does not boggle about the expense, goes into more detail.
"The first floor" (of the Folly) he tells us "consists of a large room in which you find a band of musicians and water nymphs eating and drinking with Tritons and other sea divinities, who go and visit them. On the second floor are a few small apartments where the nymphs, or more properly the syrens tired of the world retire, and, for fear of being lonely, invite a friend to amuse them."
On the opposite side of the river were Cuper's Gardens. These had been started by Boydell Cuper who was gardener to Lord Arundel, and the name became corrupted into Cupid's Gardens as more appropriate. They occupied much the same site as that now designed for the Festival of Britain. Here, von Uffenbach tells us, there were
"disgraceful goings on. Near it is a tavern where men drink and find occasion for the devil's own work."
Disgusted with these entertainments he went to see a Scotsman who broke glasses by shouting at them, which was at least a harmless amusement, if rather tame. De Saussure saw two women fighting with two-handled swords, which so revolted him that he went hastily away, regretting the half-crown he had paid for admission and resolving never to go to such an entertainment again. He thought that cock-fighting was
"much more diverting.Some of the fighting cocks" he tells us "are celebrated and have pedigrees like gentlemen of good family, some of them being worth five or six guineas. I am told that when transported to France they degenerate and their strength and courage disappear, and they become like ordinary cocks. . . Would you believe it at this place (the Whitehall Cockpit) several hundred pounds are sometimes lost and won."
As de Saussure suggests the principal interest in cock-fighting was the betting. Von Uffenbach tells us how
"an ostler in an apron often wins several guineas from a lord" and he goes on to describe how "if a man has made a bet and cannot pay, he is made to sit in a basket fastened to the ceiling and is drawn up in it amidst peals of laughter. This is a sport" he says "peculiar to the English which appears to foreigners very foolish."
In spite of this von Uffenbach goes on to tell us that
"a special building has been made for it near Gray's Inn", and that "the cocks are fed on special globules and on strong wine and sack so that they are very expensive to keep".
After visiting the cockpit von Uffenbach goes to see a bull-baiting. He gives a revolting description of this horrible affair and then says,
"Thus concluded this truly English sport, which vastly delights this nation but to me seems nothing very special."
The Frenchman, de Saussure, was less brutal in his tastes. Though he tolerated cock-fighting, he disliked the throwing at cocks which took place on Shrove Tuesday. This sport was condemned by some Englishmen, but Londoners flocked to the Dog and Duck or Hockley-in-the-Hole at Clerkenwell whenever it was advertised.
Von Uffenbach went to Hockley-in-the-Hole but this was to see "a fight with wooden swords between an Englishman and a Moor". He did not seem to have enjoyed it. The common people on the ground floor tried to climb up into the gallery and when they were prevented
"they cast up such monstrous showers of stones, sticks and filth and this with no respect of persons . . . they behaved like madmen and things looked very ugly".
He was not reassured by being told that people had been killed in the place, or had died from the wounds they had received.
"Boxing matches" Meister tells us "are conducted with all the noble generosity of the ages of chivalry. The antagonists are sure to meet with seconds who encourage and advise them, affording them every assistance they can have need of. The antagonist who has received a fall in the contest is never suffered to be attacked whilst lying on the ground. If either combatant is under the necessity of recovering his breath a knee is offered him as a seat, one man is employed in wiping off the dirt and sweat, whilst another presents drink to strengthen and refresh him."
As a matter of fact, boxing in those days, before there were any Queensberry Rules, was generally a brutal sport. Men fought with their bare fists, contests dragged on for hours, and many of the professional boxers, or bruisers as they were called, had no notion of fair play. Betting was heavy and led to a further degradation of the sport.
Casanova tells us that at one prize-fight a man was lying at the point of death. A surgeon was present and was ready to bleed him, and, though one might have thought that he had lost enough blood already, that, from the point of view of eighteenth-century surgery, was the correct thing to do. Casanova very naturally asked why it was not done. The friend who was with him explained that two men had betted twenty guineas on the prize-fighter's death or recovery, and that the man who had betted on his death would not allow the surgeon to proceed. Casanova takes this horror very coolly. "The English are very strange in their betting proclivities" is his only comment.
Of football, the national game of the present day, very little is said. De Saussure describes
"a score of rascals in the street kicking at a ball, and they will break panes of glass and smash the windows of coaches, and also knock you down without the smallest compunction; on the contrary they will roar with laughter".
No wonder that Strutt in his Book of Sports and Pasttimes says that football "seems to have fallen into disrepute". Cricket de Saussure will not attempt to describe. "It is too complicated" he says.
The circus, which as all lovers of animals must regret, is still with us, was very popular in the eighteenth century. There had, for long, been exhibitions of wild beasts and performing animals; but the first London circus was set up by Philip Astley near Westminster Bridge towards the end of the century. Sophie de la Roche tells us that
"children from seven to twelve ride there and perform a hundred and one tricks. The scenes with these children grieved me."
Sophie had a tender heart. No Englishmen grieved about performing children, and few concerned themselves with the misery of those employed in mill and mine; but even Sophie who had pitied the beasts in the Tower does not grieve about the performing animals. With a few exceptions the eighteenth century was callous as regards the suffering of the beasts.
Von Uffenbach, who carped at most things English, was not even pleased with Mrs. Salmon's Wax Works, though they were much admired by Londoners. This show was in Fleet Street near the entrance to the Temple. Figures of a beef-eater and a match woman were placed on either side of the door as attractions, and having paid the fee of sixpence, visitors would go through the toyshop on the ground floor and up to the candle-lit rooms on the first floor. There were, von Uffenbach tells us,
"six rooms full of all kinds of wax figures, mostly life size and representing ancient tales, especially English ones . . . her work is tolerable, though Frau Braunin in Frankfort makes much more elegant work".
He dismisses the show in very few words, and possibly at the date, when he visited London, it was not particularly good. Later in the century, we are told that it was crowded with waxworks. There were George III and Queen Charlotte, the Prince of Wales, General Wolfe and Dr. Johnson, John Wilkes with a cracked nose, Whitefield beside a bevy of Bishops, and Wesley apparently conversing with Dick Turpin. There were also models of shepherds and shepherdesses with their lambs and goats and a man-of-war in wax upon a sea of glass.
De la Rochefoucauld gives us an account of racing and especially of the horses which he admired so much.
"These people" he says, speaking of race-horse owners, "have from time immemorial taken the greatest pride in the breeding of their horses; they treasure their pedigrees more jealously than their own, and they never cross their breeds. In fact their horses have always been recognized as the finest in the world."
He confesses that he does not understand the English system of betting. It was highly complicated,
" and to acquire all this knowledge is so difficult" he says "that those Englishmen who have mastered the various points regard it as quite extraordinary that Mr. Fox should have been able, in five weeks of intensive study, to grasp it's intricacies. In fact they consider it to be evidence of the mastery of his genius."
"Racing debts" de la Rochefoucauld tells us, were nearly always paid and in case of a defaulter it was "the only occasion on which you may give yourself the pleasure of dealing faithfully with a man with the help of a stick or a whip; you can also set your groom on his track, which gives the groom much satisfaction."
Baretti tells us how he stayed at a town called Visbecohie which was possibly Wisbech. Here, after being bored by his host,
"a melancholy man and not in the least lively", and his mother, "who cares for nothing but staying in her room and reading the Bible ",
Baretti discovered that there were races somewhere in the neighbourhood. He had never seen a horse-race before and he describes how the horses ran three times round the course, a distance of three miles in less than six minutes which seems to have been extraordinary good going.
"When the first race is over" he says "the noble animals have an hour's rest, and a number of men set to work to rub them down and dry them thoroughly and quickly, so that they can run again and then a third time after the lapse of an hour, and the horse which has shown the best legs wins, and its owner pockets the money, while the others scratch their heads and curse their luck."
When the races were over, the company adjourned to the inn where they were staying and changed into their best clothes.
"About an hour after sunset" Baretti says "we go to the ball, which takes place in a public hall, ladies being admitted free, and then they begin by dancing minuets just as we do at public balls at home. After this they throw themselves wildly into the country dances, which fire the blood of men and women alike. When they are tired out with dancing, supper, which has been prepared in another large room, is announced. Everyone hastens to sit down at a huge table made by placing a number of small tables of the same size close together. The men take their places in a long row on one side, and the ladies on the other, each man facing his own partner. Some good clergyman, or if there is none present, some important person in the neighbourhood asks a blessing on the food in a short grace, everyone standing and saying Amen, after which there is eating and drinking and laughing and joking of all kinds; but decency and good manners everywhere prevail, and the man who ventured to give the slightest offence to the ladies by a doubtful allusion or a questionable story, as is so common in that disreputable Venice of ours, would be looked upon as the last of flesh. When this delightful supper is over, the bill is divided, each gentleman paying his share. Then we go back and dance or watch the dancing, and not till dawn peeps out of her window in the east do we break up and go home."