Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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What brought about Madame' s marriage with
Charles Mathews is not of much consequence. Their
tastes were congenial, both were enthusiastically
devoted to their art, and nothing seems to have hap-
pened in their after-lives to make them regret the
step. When troubles fell upon them they faced them
together without mutual reproaches, and probably this
is as good a test of married felicity as any. They
were married at Kensington Church on July i8th,
1838, and soon after started to fulfil an engagement
in America. This engagement was negotiated by
Stephen Price, who had run Drury Lane for a couple
of seasons and who previously had had considerable
experience as manager of one of the principal theatres
in New York. The various engagements of the


Mathewses in America promised to bring in .20,000,
with power to prolong their stay if so inclined.

George Vandenhoff, an American actor, who joined
the Olympic company in 1839, remarks of the newly
married couple with not the best of taste : " Price the
old Park Theatre (New York) manager had them . . .
married as a necessary preliminary sort of -purification
before their being admitted to the rarefied atmosphere
of New York." The Puritanic prudishness of America
was, as Charles Dickens did not fail to record in
Martin Chuzzlewit, easily outraged, and no doubt
certain sections of society were somewhat ruffled
by the prospect of so notorious a lady presuming to
appear before the decorous citizens of New York.
Marriage would hardly have altered their sentiments
it certainly did not in later times when one of the
most gifted comediennes of the twentieth century
(now passed away, alas !) was received with rabid
hostility. This attitude had probably much to do
with the failure of the Mathewses' tour in 1838.

Some of the preliminary paragraphs in the American
newspapers were anything but encouraging. " After
twenty years of ' mad, lurid joys,' " ran one, " Madame
Vestris has actually wheedled into wedlock the very
convenient semi-daft son of the mimic who had once
enjoyed American hospitality of the kindest sort and
then caricatured his friendly entertainers by making
them the jest or laughing-stock of stupid John Bull."
"Horribly personal," as young Martin Chuzzlewit
told the editor after reading a sample of American
journalism. Mr. and Mrs. Mathews's experience of
American manners was not less unpleasant. To prepare
for their professional ordeal the couple went for rest
and quiet to the little village of Poughkeepsie. They
found neither. Tired to death with a fatiguing jour-
ney and covered from head to foot with dust, they
found the " summer retreat " ablaze with light and
noisy with revelry.

" A host of elegantly dressed men and women,"

As the Buy-a-broom girl.



says Mathews, " abandoned the illuminated ball-room
and lined the piazzas and corridors, to inspect the
new arrivals. Through this bevy of strangers we
sneaked as quickly as we could in search of a room. A
room ! What an idea ! The whole place was brimful
and over-full, and every bed doubly occupied. Sitting-
rooms were unknown ; the public saloons were the
only resorts for meals and conversation, and repose
and quiet were things never even inquired for. After
writing our names in the book, for public inspection,
the whole party was in a state of tumult, and * The
Mathooses ! ' travelled from mouth to mouth with
electric speed. A small bedroom was given up by
one of the officials of the house. It was divided by
a scanty Venetian blind from the public corridor,
or piazza as they called it ; and we were allowed, on
the plea of ill-health, to have a cup of tea in it alone.
This, it appeared, gave great offence ; and there is
no doubt we were greatly to blame in not at once
putting on our ball dresses and joining the dancers.

" It was clear this was no place for us, and a carriage
was ordered to be ready immediately after breakfast,
to bump us down again. This was not to be done
privately. The guests were all up in arms and indig-
nation. At the moment of departure, as we sallied
forth into the corridor, we found it lined on each
side with eager faces turned towards us, to get at
least one good stare at parting. We retreated for a
moment, to hold a council of war, when a sympathising
coloured waiter grinned with delight as he beckoned
us down a back staircase to a lower corridor, through
which we passed, leaving the mob of starers over our
heads, popped into the carriage, and off we drove.

" I need scarcely say this flagrant act was never
forgiven, and what was worse, actually cost us ^20,000."

Vestris and Mathews started their repertoire at
the Park Theatre, New York, on September lyth,
1838. The notice in the New York Mirror was on
the whole complimentary, but remarked that, while



the audience was " in raptures, the critics were in
a quandary about her." The Mirror itself did not
consider Madame Vestris superior even in her most
favourite parts to Miss Tree and Mrs. Keeley. " The
principal charm of her performance is in her singing.
Nothing can exceed the effect of the execution of
the beautiful little song * I've No Money ' in the Loan
of a Lover. It excites the enthusiasm of the audience
to the highest pitch. In Don Giovanni, which is
rich in beautiful and popular airs, Madame Vestris
is deservedly celebrated."

But for some reason there seems to have been a
prejudice against Vestris. She herself probably did
not feel at home, and it was not easy for her to conceal
her feelings. She would be quick to see that her
dash and sparkle were lost upon an audience which
was not in sympathy with her. A significant feature
was that after a few nights the seats were mainly occu-
pied by men. Mathews says : " We played our first
engagement to good houses, the ladies gradually
making their appearance, and all seemed right again.
But a damp was thrown over the whole affair, and as
a commercial speculation it turned out a failure to
the management.

" We then went to Philadelphia, where we had the
same ordeal to go through, and to complete the matter,
a great monetary crisis arrived, which struck a still
more fatal blow to theatrical amusements generally ;
and, in short, after two or three months, I deter-
mined to abandon all further attempt, and a farewell
engagement was announced in New York. A better
feeling now began to manifest itself, and I really believe
the public became ashamed of the absurdity of the
whole transaction. However, I was firm in my deter-
mination to return, and a crammed house, with a
brilliant assemblage of ladies, graced our last appear-
ance. At the conclusion of the performance, in a
long speech, I related all the facts I have mentioned,
and bade them (as I then supposed) farewell for ever.


" The effect was everything that could be desired,
and I was cheered and applauded as if I had been
the greatest favourite in the world, and I verily believe
that if I had been allowed to address them in the same
straightforward manner on the first night that I
insisted on doing on the last, the scale would have
turned at once in my favour."

Commenting on Mathews's farewell address, the
Mirror expressed its opinion that the cause of the
failure was " to be found in the inadequacy of their
attractions. . . . Had Mr. Mathews made his appear-
ance here alone in fashionable comedy he would
have stood a much better chance of success. Mrs.
Mathews wholly failed in equalling the extravagant
expectations which had been raised in regard to her ;
while her youthful husband much surpassed the
anticipations of the public."

The New Tork Star sounded the same note. " It
has been said," it asserted, " that conspiracies were
set on foot against them, that they had committed
themselves disrespectfully in one of the hotels in a
travelling excursion that pamphlets impugning the
lady's character had been set afloat, and a riot was
expected. All this, however, amounted to nothing
their reception was warm and enthusiastic their
performances entirely free from disturbances of
any kind every possible chance was afforded them,
but they did not make that impression on the public
which had been anticipated. Madame Vestris is a
very pleasing actress quiet, natural, easy, and un-
affected, with a sweet ballad voice but Time, that
enslaving monster, has passed his icy finger over her
brow ; and although she looks uncommonly well in
face and figure, and her constitution appears to have
masked all the shocks of a long theatrical life, still it
is evident that Madame Vestris could not possibly
be in 1838 what she had been in 1818."

The Star's greatest complaint, however, was that
there had been too much Vestris. " They might


have succeeded admirably as auxiliaries, as sauces to
other rich viands, but alone and nothing else and they
too with a stock company whittled almost down to
nothing, made the whole affair cold, clammy, and
unpalatable." The truth of the matter seems to be
that individual characteristics which have fastened
themselves upon English taste by the process of growth
do not succeed when transplanted. During recent
years the experience of many popular favourites of
the English theatres and halls who have appeared before
American audiences has been mainly that of Madame
Vestris and Charles Mathews. Every nationality has
its own ideas of humour, and humour, it may be said,
is a question of habit. Old jokes are generally better
appreciated than new ones.

While the Mathewses were away, Planche took the
management of the Olympic. A strong company,
including Farren, in place of Liston, and Mrs. Nesbitt,
an accomplished actress but without the attractive
personality of Vestris, Mrs. Humby, Mrs. Orger, and
Mrs. Waylett in purely comedy parts, had been en-
gaged ; but without the all-pervading influence of
Vestris the fortunes of the theatre languished. " On
our return to London," says Mathews, " we found the
Olympic in a fainting state. During the five months
we had been absent it had incurred a large amount of
debt, besides having swallowed up the large sums
I had remitted from America to bolster it up."

Vestris did not make her appearance on the stage
for some nights after resuming management. One
of the pieces identified with Mathews, Patter v. Clatter,
maintaining its hold for many years, was put on for
his reintroduction. The house does not appear to
have been crowded save the pit. Rank and fashion
at that time had no particular interest in Mathews,
and the boxes were but scantily filled a fact which
was more apparent as the shilling gallery had been
abolished some two or three seasons before and four-
shilling boxes substituted.


But he had a hearty reception from the pittites,
was called for at the close of the piece, and he uttered
a few broken words of thanks. Vestris, who was in a
box consumed by anxiety, must have been thankful
that all went off well.

The theatre presented a very different aspect when
Vestris herself appeared to receive the welcome of
her London admirers. They had remained faithful
to their allegiance. Long before the opening of the
doors Wych Street was impassable and the rush for
entrance was so great that one of the doors was

Blue Beard, an extravaganza burlesque of the type
identified with the Olympic, was the play in which she
elected to show herself, and when she entered to the
playing of " Home, Sweet Home," the audience rose,
burst into a continuous roar of applause, waved their
hats, beaver and gossamer, their handkerchiefs, " tails
of coats, mackintoshes," says Figaro in London, " and
in one instance a lady's cap on an umbrella." The
stage was strewn with flowers, and when a large bouquet
fell at her feet she caught it up and kissed the blooms,
completely overcome by emotion. With a violent
effort she regained her self-possession and dashed into
her part. She no longer had any doubt that her popu-
larity had in the slightest degree diminished, and the
warmth of her reception did much to compensate
for her depressing American experience.

It was remarked that Madame looked thinner but
otherwise no alteration was perceptible. Her voice
had retained all its lusciousness, her movements their
accustomed grace, and her acting all its fascinating

Blue Beard was not the Bluebeard of the nursery
tale. The spectacle was not intended, as it would
be in the present day, for juveniles. Planche treated
his subject reverently and in his zeal for accuracy laid
the scene according to the original legend of Brittany
and dressed the characters in the costume of the


fifteenth century. Whether for this reason or any
other, Blue Beard was a great success and ran to the end
of the season. In addition to Blue Beard, Madame
Vestris put on other new pieces, among them Our
Cousin German (evidently intended to be apropos to
the marriage of Queen Victoria with her cousin), or
I did it for the Best, Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady,
Petticoat Government, Izaac JF0 /taw (Farren and Vestris),
Meet Me by Moonlight (Keeley), alternated with
revivals of old successes, High, Low, Jack, and the
Game, and The Two Figaros, and for a time she acted
at the little theatre in Tottenham Street (formerly
the Fitzroy and then called the Prince's) in dramas
which the Lord Chamberlain's licence would not
permit at the Olympic.

The ninth season at the Olympic ended on May
3 ist, 1839, and with it Madame Vestris's tenancy.
The receipts had been satisfactory so far as the capacity
of the house would allow, but, as Mathews points out,
it was apparent that in so small a theatre there was
no chance of recouping the heavy loss that had been
incurred during his and Madame's absence in America,
and Covent Garden Theatre being available, the entire
company with scenery, dresses, and properties removed
to that house.

Just before the theatre closed, James Smith, one
of the two brothers who wrote the famous Rejected
Addresses, sent a poetical tribute to Vestris, which,
coming from a man of recognised literary taste, must
have pleased her highly. It was contained in a letter
he wrote to Planche, and ran :

Though not with lace bedizened o'er

From James and from Howell's,
Ah, don't despise us twenty- four

Poor consonant and vowels.
Though critics may your powers discuss,

Your charms applauding men see,
Remember you from four of us

Derive your X. L. N. Ct


Planche passed the lines on to the lady for whom
they were intended, and she asked him to reply for
her, which he did in this happy way :

Madame Vestrifs Answer to the Alphabet

Dear friends, although no more a dunce

Than many of my betters,
I'm puzzled to reply at once

To four-and-twenty letters !

Perhaps you'll think that may not be

So hard a thing to do,
For what is difficult to me

Is A.B.C. to you.

However, pray dismiss your fears,

Nor fancy you have lost me,
Though many, many bitter tears

Your first acquaintance cost me.

Believe me, till existence ends

Whatever ills beset you,
My oldest literary friends,

I never can forget you.



The Olympic management reviewed. A wonderful record. West-
land Marston's analysis of Vestris's dramatic art. Her amazing versa-
tility. How The Court Beauties was produced. A model of realism.
Novelties in The Olympic Picture. Riquet with the Tuft, the pioneer
of the modern gorgeous pantomime. The pantomime of the thirties
little more than a harlequinade. Vestris's clear articulation highly
praised. End of the ninth season of the Olympic and Vestris's farewell
address. She and Charles Mathews become lessees of Covent Garden

A REVIEW of the arduous work undertaken by Vestris
during her nine seasons at the Olympic from January
3rd, 1831, to May 3ist, 1839, discloses a truly aston-
ishing number of new pieces put on by her, in many
of which she enacted the chief part. Nothing old
was attempted ; the programme of novelty and com-
pleteness of detail in every department, histrionic
and mechanical, was rigidly adhered to. It is doubtful
whether Vestris's record at the Olympic, of enterprise,
energy, and untiring efforts to put on the best enter-
tainment possible, can be paralleled. Her insistence
on accuracy in costume and scenic effects, irrespective
of cost, paved the way for Charles Kean, Henry Irving,
and Beerbohm Tree. Vestris was unquestionably the
pioneer of the modern stage.

The list of new pieces, burlettas, extravaganzas,
musical farces, etc., is far too long to find a place here,
and it is to be regretted that Genest's History of the
Stage ended before Vestris's regime. Otherwise the
meticulous care with which the work is compiled
would have been of great value to the student of



the theatre, could it have had within its scope the
chronicles of the Vestris period. A few of the princi-
pal productions are entitled to more than a passing
reference, partly because of the personality which
Vestris infused into them and partly because of their
own merits as examples of care and completeness. The
Olympic Revels, with which she inaugurated her
management, gave occasion for a discriminating study
of the actress and her methods, by Westland Marston,
which is worth quotation, as it brings her very vividly
before us.

" She never failed," Marston points out, " to give
her personal attention to the advantage of rich and
tasteful costume, and she was such a votary of
elegance in dress, that she could display it even in
rustic or humble characters. That a silk shirt, a
lace-edged petticoat, a silk stocking, a stock of satin
or patent leather would never have been worn by
some of the characters she personated, was of no more
concern to her on the ground of consistency than were
their rich attires to Marie Antoinette and the ladies
of her Court, when they masqueraded as shepherdesses
and milkmaids in the grounds of the Petit Trianon. . . .

" It was, I fancy, her practice of taking the house
into her confidence, combined with her coquetry
and personal attractions, that rendered Vestris so
bewitching to the public. When she sang, she looked
with a questioning archness at her audience, as if to
ask, ' Do you enjoy that as I do ? Did I give it with
tolerable effect ? ' And though in the delivery of
dialogue she could hardly be called keen or brilliant,
she knew what mischief and retort meant. When
she had given a sting to the latter, she could glance
round, as to ask for approval, with a smile that seemed
to say, * I was a little severe there. He felt that, I
suppose ? ' She had on the stage, either real or
assumed, the abstraction of a spoiled favourite. Then,
on the night of my first seeing her as Psyche, I think,
in Olympic Revels she could at times seem absorbed


in contemplating her dress, in adjusting a sleeve or
a fold of the skirt, or she would drop her eye in reverie
upon the point of her pink satin bottines. Of a sudden
she would affect to wake to consciousness, and cast
a trustful and appealing glance on the house, then
become demure and staid as one who felt she had taxed
indulgence. She had skill enough not to carry these
little pantomimic contrasts too far and to enhance
them by fits of reserve."

The completeness with which Mary Queen of Scots
was put upon the stage and its strict attention to
accuracy in the appointments and costumes was a
revelation to the managers of the old school. The
picture presented by Queen Mary's room in Lochleven
Castle may be taken as an example. Every single
thing in it was in perfect keeping with the period.
The tables, chairs, couches, etc., were all of genuine
carved oak, and everything bore the arms or emblazon-
ment of the Stuarts. The window curtains, table
and chair covers, drinking goblets, candlesticks, knives
and forks, nay, even to the very carpet on the floor,
were thus marked. The result was a picture which
would have borne the scrutiny of an archaeologist or
an antiquary, though intended merely as a background
to the work of the dramatist and the acting of Miss
Foote. The " Old Stager," from whose records
(quoted by John Coleman) this description is
taken, sums up thus : " With a full recollection of
all that has been done since by Macready, Madame
herself, and Mr. Charles Kean, I believe that no
more elaborately perfect ' set ' was ever seen on the

In the days of Giovanni in London and The Beggar's
Opera, Vestris never excited more enthusiasm than
during her reign at the Olympic. She seemed en-
dowed with personal youth, beauty, and vivacity.
Here are a few of the compliments showered upon
her by the Press :

" Madame in all the radiance of her own beauty


and with the additional ornament of one of the most
splendid costumes we ever saw (The Deep, Deep Sea) ;
Vestris as a hurdy-gurdy scraper dancing a pas de deux
with Pincott (The Retort Courteous), one of the most
effective exhibitions of its kind that we have seen for
years." Madame's performance in How to Get Off
was pronounced " a great treat an admirable personi-
fication of that strange race of beings called ladies'
maids." In Telemachus Madame Vestris's voice was
declared to be as fine as ever and she herself as
charming. " No wonder this theatre succeeds. She
played to perfection the wicked-eyed, black-haired,
short-petticoated, handsome-legged coquette Lisette
Giserestein, in Why Don't She Marry ? "

The Court Beauties of the fifth season was an enor-
mous success. It was just one of the pieces in which
Vestris revelled. Planche was indebted for the idea
to Douglas Jerrold, and the scene in which " King
Charles IPs Beauties " were represented in their
frames from Sir Peter Lely's luscious pictures at
Hampton Court by ladies of the company really
anticipated the " living pictures " in favour a few
years ago.

The " Old Stager " has much to say about the pro-
duction of The Court Beauties, over which no end of
trouble was taken and money spent with an audacity
and a desire for accuracy which were part of Madame's
character. " The scene painter, machinest, costumier,
and property-man of the theatre were despatched to
Hampton Court to take notes of everything necessary
from the original paintings deposited in the picture-
gallery there. We had hardly commenced work when
one of the attendants stopped us, saying that no one
could be allowed to copy anything there without
special permission of the Lord Chamberlain, so we
had to return to London with our purpose unful-

" This hitch in the business, however, was soon re-
moved. The same evening, Lord Adolphus


clarence was behind the scenes, to whom Madame
related the circumstances and expressed her disappoint-
ment at the result. . . . ' Dolly ' drove straight down
to St. James's Palace, saw the King, his father, and
then came back with an order bearing the signature
of the Sovereign, ordering the attendants at Hampton
Court to allow us to copy what we pleased. . . ."

" The first scene was the Mall in St. James's Park,
beautifully reproduced from a print of the period
of the play. The effect of this scene was much height-
ened by our making use of a passage, fully one hundred
feet in length, which led from the back of the stage
to Craven Buildings, and by which the Mall was repre-
sented going away into perspective, with wonderful
appearance of reality.

" On wires hung between the trees were suspended
numerous cages with various kinds of singing birds,
whose St. Giles's owners managed to make them sing
to perfection. On the rising of the curtain this scene
used to call forth the most enthusiastic applause, and
the demonstration certainly did not diminish when
Mr. Hooper, looking the Merry Monarch to the life,
came on, followed by his attendants, all in gorgeous
and scrupulously correct costumes of the reign of
Charles II.

" True to the life, the King was accompanied more-
over by a number of King Charles's spaniels. There
were twelve in all of these little brutes, and one couple
of them alone named respectively ' Nell Gwynne '
and * Old Noll ' cost no less a sum than seventy
pounds sterling !

" The second scene showed the fruits of our labours
at Hampton Court. It was a correct model of the

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 18 of 24)