Part 1 out of 5
THE PALMY DAYS OF NANCE OLDFIELD
[Illustration: Mrs. Oldfield the celebrated Comedian]
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
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
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
"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
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
* * * * *
"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
[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
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
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
[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
"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
"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."
[Illustration: COLLEY CIBBER
In the character of "Sir Novelty Fashion, newly created Lord
Foppington," in Vanbrugh's play of "The Relapse, or, Virtue in
_From the Painting by_ J. GRISONI, _the property of the Garrick Club_]
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
[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
[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
[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
[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
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
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
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
"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
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
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."
[Illustration: ROBERT WILKS _After the Painting by_ JOHN ELLYS, 1732]
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"
"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
"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
"LADY EASY. At this rate you would rather be thought beautiful than
"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
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
"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
"SIR CHARLES. Pr'ythee don't be uneasy. Did she give it to you, my
"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.]
"MORE. So! But I must bear it. If your lordship has a mind to the box,
I'll stand by you in the keeping of it.
"FOP. My lord, I'm passionately oblig'd to you, but I am afraid I
cannot answer your hazarding so much of the lady's favour.
"MORE. Not at all, my lord; 'tis possible I may not have the same
regard to her frown that your lordship has. [Here's a bit of human
nature. Morelove stands in awe of that frown, but he doth valiantly
protest, and that too much, that the displeasure of Lady Betty is no
more to him than a dozen of ciphers.]
"FOP. That's a bite, I am sure--he'd give a joint of his little
finger to be as well with her as I am. [_Aside_.] But here she comes!
Charles, stand by me. Must not a man be a vain coxcomb now, to think
this creature follow'd one?
"SIR CHARLES. Nothing so plain, my lord.
"FOP. Flattering devil."
_Enter_ LADY BETTY.
"LADY BETTY. Pshah, my Lord Foppington! Pr'ythee don't play the fool
now, but give me my snuff-box. Sir Charles, help me to take it from
"SIR CHARLES. You know I hate trouble, madame.
"LADY BETTY. Pooh! you'll make me stay still; prayers are half over
"FOP. If you'll promise me not to go to church, I'll give it you.
"LADY BETTY. I'll promise nothing at all, for positively I will have
it. [_Struggling with him_.
"FOP. Then comparatively I won't part with it, ha! ha!
[_Struggles with her_.
"LADY BETTY. O you devil, you have kill'd my arm! Oh! Well--if you'll
let me have it, I'll give you a better.
"MORE. [_Aside to_ SIR CHARLES.] O Charles! that has a view of distant
kindness in it.
"FOP. Nay, now I keep it superlatively. I find there's a secret value
"LADY BETTY. O dismal! upon my word, I am only ashamed to give it you.
Do you think I wou'd offer such an odious fancy'd thing to anybody I
had the least value for?
"SIR CHARLES. [_Aside to_ LORD MORELOVE.] Now it comes a little
nearer, methinks it does not seem to be any kindness at all.
"FOP. Why, really, madame, upon second view, it has not extremely the
mode of a lady's utensil: are you sure it never held anything but
"LADY BETTY. O! you monster!
"FOP. Nay, I only ask because it seems to me to have very much the air
and fancy of Monsieur Smoakandfot's tobacco-box.
"MORE. I can bear no more.
"SIR CHARLES. Why don't then; I'll step into the company and return to
your relief immediately.
"MORE. [_To_ LADY BETTY.] Come, madame, will your ladyship give me
leave to end the difference? Since the slightness of the thing may
let you bestow it without any mark of favour, shall I beg it of your
"LADY BETTY. O my lord, no body sooner. I beg you give it my lord.
[_Looking earnestly on_ LORD FOPPINGTON, _who, smiling, gives it to_
LORD MORELOVE _and then bows gravely to her_].
"MORE. Only to have the honour of restoring it to your lordship; and
if there be any other trifle of mine your lordship has a fancy to,
tho' it were a mistress, I don't know any person in the world who has
so good a claim to my resignation."
* * * * *
In the hands of Powell, Cibber, and Oldfield this scene must have had
all the sparkle of champagne; but let us hope, speaking of wine, that
the prince of paragons, Morelove, was perfectly sober. Or shall we
say comparatively sober?--for when bibulous George had just a dash of
spirits within him (and that was nearly always) there came a roseate
hue to his acting which rather added to its romantic colour. Sometimes
this colour was laid on too garishly, as the supply of fire-water
happened to be larger,[A] and Sir John Vanbrugh has himself left it on
record that Powell, as Worthy, came well nigh spoiling the original
production of the "Relapse." "I own," writes Sir John, "the first
night this thing was acted, some indecencies had like to have
happened; but it was not my fault. The fine gentleman of the play,
drinking his mistress's health in Nantes brandy, from six in the
morning to the time he waddled up upon the stage in the evening, had
toasted himself up to such a pitch of vigour, I confess I once gave up
Amanda for gone; and am since, with all due respect to Mrs. Rogers,
very sorry she escaped; for I am confident a certain lady (let no one
take it to herself that is handsome) who highly blames the play, for
the barrenness of the conclusion, would then have allowed it a very
natural close." It should be added that the Mrs. Rogers herein
mentioned as playing Amanda was a capable tragic actress whose
ambition it was to enact none but virtuous women. Her own virtue--but
we are dipping into scandal.[B]
[Footnote A: To the folly of intoxication he added the horrors of
debt, and was so hunted by the sheriffs' officers that he usually
walked the streets with a sword (sheathed) in his hand; and if he saw
any of them at a distance, he would roar out, "Get on the other side
of the way, you dog!" The bailiff, who knew his old customer, would
obligingly answer, "We do not want you _now_, Master Powell." EDMUND
[Footnote B: Her fondness for virtue on the stage she began to think
might persuade the world that it had made an impression on her private
life; and the appearance of it actually went so far that, in an
epilogue to an obscure play, the profits of which were given to her,
and wherein she acted a part of impregnable chastity, she bespoke
the favour of the ladies by a protestation that in honour of their
goodness and virtue she would dedicate her unblemished life to their
example. Part of this vestal vow, I remember, was contained in the
"Study to live the character I play."
But alas! how weak are the strongest works of art when Nature besieges
As for the "Careless Husband," the more one reads from it the more
cause is there to regret the utter hopelessness of reviving a play so
honeycombed by inuendo. How delightfully, for instance, would some of
the badinage between Morelove and the spirited Lady Betty have been
treated in the earlier days of the Daly Company, with John Drew and
Miss Rehan as the lovers. We can picture the two, as they would have
given the following lines, the one gentlemanly and effective, the
other imperious, liquid-voiced, and radiant of humour:
* * * * *
"MORELOVE. Do you know, madame, I have just found out, that upon your
account I have made myself one of the most ridiculous puppies upon the
face of the earth--I have upon my faith! Nay, and so extravagantly
such--ha! ha! ha!--that it's at last become a jest even to myself; and
I can't help laughing at it for the soul of me; ha! ha! ha!
"LADY BETTY. [_Aside_.] I want to cure him of that laugh now. My lord,
since you are so generous, I'll tell you another secret. Do you
know, too, that I still find (spite of all your great wisdom, and my
contemptible qualities, as you are pleased now and then to call them),
do you know, I say, that I see under all this, you still love me with
the same helpless passion; and can your vast foresight imagine I won't
use you accordingly, for these extraordinary airs you are pleased to
give yourself.' [Talk of the independence of the 'New Woman.' Who
could have been more self-assertive than this eighteenth century
"MORE. O by all means, madame, 'tis as you should, and I expect it
whenever it is in your power. [_Aside_] Confusion!
"LADY BETTY. My lord, you have talked to me this half-hour without
confessing pain. [_Pauses and affects to gape_.] Only remember it.
"MORE. Hell and tortures!
"LADY BETTY. What did you say, my lord?
"MORE. Fire and furies!
"LADY BETTY. Ha! ha! he's disorder'd. Now I am easy. My Lord
Foppington, have you a mind to your revenge at piquet?