Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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room in the Palace there called the ' King Charles's
Beauty Room,' the back of it representing the wall
with the eight life-size pictures by Lely, each in its
massive frame. The sides were hung with beautiful
tapestry, which, though now used for the purposes
of stage illusion merely, was the bona-fide article, the


real handiwork of ladies at King Charles IPs Court.
For many years it had adorned the walls of Carlton
House, and had now been purchased by Madame for
a pretty roundish sum, to contribute to the vraisem-
blance of this piece. Nay, more, the curtain which I
have mentioned as concealing this picture while the
King and Sir Godfrey were at supper, was the identical
stuff, green with gold embroidery, which has for years
covered the original portraits at Hampton Court.
Having been replaced at the Palace by a new one, the
discarded article came into the possession of a valet
of the Lord Chamberlain, who sold it to us.

" The ceiling of the scene was a painted repre-
sentation of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and from
the centre there hung a massive old crystal chandelier
with no less than fifty wax tapers burning in it. For
the miscellaneous furniture and properties we had
searched the chief curiosity-shops in London until
the smallest item required was procured in keeping
with the rest. Such, as briefly as I could well give
it, is a sample of the means which Madame Vestris
took to deserve that success which, as a rule, she
managed to command."

The Olympic Picnic (December 26th, 1835) con-
tained certain novel features which in modern times
have been carried to excess. Well-advertised nos-
trums were engrafted on to a pseudo-classical story.
Psyche (Madame Vestris), having incurred the anger
of Jupiter and Venus, is consigned to search for the
box of beauty, which she finds in what the Olympic
deities called " Lower Pall Mall," in reality Crock-
ford's gambling-house.

This box provided by Pluto, on being opened by
Psyche, is found to contain an eighteen-penny bottle
of Warren's blacking, then all the vogue, as the
admirers of Sam Weller will remember. In some
magical way the blacking transfers itself to the face
of the lovely Psyche and gives it the lustrous appear-
ance of patent leather. Wandering in this plight,


Psyche comes upon a party of gods and goddesses
picknicking, and among the company is Zephyr,
represented as a lady of fashion. Zephyr proclaims
the virtues of Rowland's Kalydor, which she asserts
has the power of converting the ugliest object into
the most beautiful. The sable-faced Psyche is selected
as a test, the Kalydor is applied, she is transformed,
recognised, received with joy and forgiveness. All very
absurd and even childish, but this was of no moment.
The burlesque served as a vehicle for splendid scenery,
gorgeous dresses, pretty faces and figures, and tuneful
music. " Vestris," one reads without surprise, " was
the life and soul of the piece."

Riquet with the Tuft, put on as a Christmas piece
in 1836, was the first of a series of fairy extravaganzas,
followed by many others and afterwards identified with
Madame Vestris's management of the Lyceum. It
was an adaptation from the French, and when Planche
proposed it to Vestris, both she and Charles Mathew r s,
by this time a member of the company, were doubtful
of the success of what they called a new experiment,
for hitherto the subject of the Christmas pieces for
six years had been invariably classical. It so happened
that the author of The Olympic Picnic was Samuel
Lover, who wrote a once-popular comic novel,
Handy Andy, and many humorous songs, the music
as well as the words. Both Charles Dance and
Planche, fearing that Lover was trenching on their
ground, determined to strike out a new line. Vestris
and Mathews allowed themselves to be persuaded,
but at the eleventh hour they hesitated and were
inclined to revive one of the classical favourites
rather than risk the ruin of the whole season by
the failure of this untried species of entertainment.
Planche and Dance, however, held out ; the piece
was produced and the success was tremendous.

As a sort of apology for and explanation of the
departure from the usual Christmas programme, Vestris
as the Princess Esmeralda sang this parody of the song


which Henry Phillips made famous, " The Fine Old
English Gentleman " :

Old friends, I've the old prayer to make before it is too late,
With your bold kindness please to view this change in our old state,
Our old mythology, we thought, was getting out of date,
And so we've left Olympic old and all its gods so great
For a fine old English fairy-tale, one of the olden time.

It is interesting to note that the criticisms of Vestris
after she became manageress and acted in plays which
appealed to her sense of art changed in tone. She was
no longer praised because of her beauty of face and
figure, her fascinations, her charm of voice. She was
now regarded as an actress who aimed at a high standard,
albeit that standard did not go beyond imagination
and fancy. The notice of Riquet with the Tuft in the
Morning Chronicle may be taken as an example :
" Madame Vestris was the beautiful but half-witted
Esmeralda. She acted the part admirably ; we hardly
thought she could have made the character so strikingly
interesting as she did. In the first part of the piece
she came on the stage bounding after a butterfly
and exhibiting endless absurdities of manner and
expression ; then came her restoration to reason by
the hump-backed invisible Riquet, and then she
displayed a warmth of tone and soundness of expression
and delicacy of feeling which proved a complete and
striking contrast to the absurdities which had passed.
Nothing could exceed the beautiful pathos and rich-
ness of tone which she threw into the melody ' The
Light of Other Days has Faded.' "

For the extravaganza as a whole the Chronicle had
quite a song of praise. " What," it wrote, " could
be more enlivening than the scene of Fairyland with
scores of little fairies dancing a true fairy round ?
What more inviting than the fairy kitchen scene
with all the little pigmy cooks frying, stewing, pepper-
ing ; basting and tasting the delicacies preparing for
her highness' s wedding breakfast ? What could be
more imposing than the grand review of all the com-


bined heroes of fairy romance, from Jack the Giant
Killer to the Seven Champions from Cinderella to
Beauty and the Beast, which concluded the enter-
tainment ? "

The production and success of Riquet with the 'Tuft
have a significant bearing upon the pantomimes of
later years. Mr. Dutton Cook (Book of the Play)
says that up to the year 1850 the harlequinade was
announced by a series of dioramic views, mostly
the work of Clarkson Stanfield. This bald and un-
interesting expedient then gave place to the " gor-
geous transformation scenes traceable to the grand
displays which were wont to conclude Mr. Planche's
extravaganzas." The employment of fairy-tales as
themes for pantomimes was thus instrumentally due
to Madame Vestris, thanks to her acceptance of
Planche's ideas. The pantomime of Joey Grimaldi
and his immediate successors was a totally different
affair from that of the present day. The old clowns
played to audiences of adults ; children are now only
considered, or should be. But it may be that panto-
mimes, like a good many other things theatrical, have
now had their day.

Among Vestris's other successes A Duke for a Day
(January 24th, 1831), founded on Boieldieu'sZ<? Seigneur
du village, is notable for a criticism which in a way
was the foundation of her hold upon the public. They
could always hear every word she uttered, whether
spoken or sung an accomplishment which too many
actresses and singers nowadays quite ignore. " The
rich tones of her voice," wrote the critic, " are poured
forth without exertion ; moreover, her pronunciation
of the words renders them as familiar to the audience
as if they were exhibited in melodramatic letters of
fire upon a flat scene. If she goes on in this way, she
will ruin the fruit-women, for nobody will buy a
book of the songs." Of how many singers now before
the public can this be said ? Yet it is in clear articula-
tion that all great vocalists have excelled.


(From a letter to Charles Harris.)


In the farewell address on May 3ist, 1839, Vestris
would have been fully entitled to recapitulate some
of her triumphs, but she was one to look forward to
fresh successes rather than to go back to old ones, and
it will be seen from the following that she started upon
her new venture full of hope and confidence :

" LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, For the ninth time I
have the honour to drop my curtsey and my curtain
at the close of a prosperous season, for which, in Mr.
Mathews's name and my own, I beg to offer you our
best acknowledgements.

" There have been peculiar circumstances connected
with the season about to conclude which I conceive
I had better say but little about. I may, however,
safely and truly say that I left you with unfeigned
regret and returned to you with unbounded joy, and
though it must be confessed that the mode in which
you manifested your regret at my absence was more
calculated to feed my vanity than my treasury, your
kindness since my return has left the latter nothing
to complain of.

" Encouraged by the approbation my managerial
efforts have received, we have become lessees of the
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. I am aware that
we shall have many difficulties to contend with. We
propose to face them manfully and womanfully
to preserve the good points of former managements
and reject the bad to take with us the best results
of my experience here, and to trust to the public to
do the rest.

" Some kind friends have already prophesied that I
shall not succeed there. My only answer is, that nine
years ago they said I should never succeed here.

" The most absurd reports are in circulation about
the characters which we mean to appropriate to
ourselves ; two of them, and only two, I shall notice,
for if allowed to remain uncontradicted they may do
us serious injury Mr. Mathews will not play Macbeth,
and I have positively refused Queen Catherine.


" In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I beg to
state that the great increase of our business having
justified us in taking more extensive premises, I most
respectfully, for the performers and myself, bid you
farewell until we meet in September next at the
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, where I entreat a
continuance of your custom and recommendation for
the house of Mathews, Vestris, and Company."



Vestris at Covent Garden Theatre. Her prospects. Qualifications
as a theatrical manageress. Westmacott's attacks cease. Difficulties
in the way of the new enterprise. Vestris' s superiority to Macready
as a manager. Love's Labour's Lost, the opening piece. First night
uproar. Shakespeare a failure. Sheridan Knowles's play, Love.
Financial Embarrassments. The Beggar's Opera put on as a last
resource, dressed in the proper eighteenth-century fashion. The
house packed nightly, but embarrassments continue.

MADAME VESTRIS'S decision to embark her and her
husband's fortunes at Covent Garden was a venture
which demanded boldness, energy, and belief in
success. But she was nothing if not sanguine, and
her policy of no half-measures was the only safe one
where so big an undertaking was concerned. She was
fortunate in her partner. Charles Mathews had estab-
lished his popularity in a certain line of character-
acting in which he had no rival, and that popularity
was increasing. His buoyancy of spirits was equal to
hers, and this was a great asset.

The greatest point in her favour, however, was
that her management of the Olympic had shown that
she was not the frivolous, capricious light o' love that
scandal had represented her. Her delight in pleasure
was the outcome of a vivacious, restless nature which
could not tolerate dullness and monotony, while her
innate love of art and all that was beautiful in art
was her protection against vulgarity of any kind. The
exception which the critics sometimes took to her
impersonation of the pert chambermaid a stock
character in nearly all the comedies of the day was



that she was inclined to be too ladylike. She was
wanting in the abandon and knowledge of low life which
other noted actresses, her inferiors in many respects,
threw into such parts. One cannot imagine her guilty
of the mistake which Mrs. Abington made in playing
Scrub in The Beaux' Stratagem. She was never
otherwise than womanly even when she put on mascu-
line garb, and she was essentially womanly in that she
delighted to give pleasure to others.

It was a source of continual unhappiness that
episodes in her life made her vulnerable to the attacks
of the vicious-minded. As has been shown, the
Olympic regime was embittered by the despicable
pin-pricks of Westmacott. With the end of the Olym-
pic and the culmination of her mistakes outside the
theatre in bankruptcy came also the end of her perse-
cution. This cessation may have owed something to
her new departure in life and something to her mar-
riage. In many aspects of her conduct it may be said
that she was more sinned against than sinning.

Whether Westmacott had any remorse or that
particular sources of her income having dried up she
was not worth pursuing further does not matter very
much. Certain it is that after her bankruptcy the
Age let her alone, and it is to be noted that when she
became manageress of Covent Garden Theatre its
petty persecution ceased. It may be that Molloy
Westmacott had parted with his interest in the paper ;
but whether this was so or not, throughout the Covent
Garden campaign the Age gave forth nothing but a
song of laudation over everything that Vestris did.
At times when occasion called for it faults were pointed
out, but such strictures were confined to the play or
to performers other than Vestris. For her there was
nothing but praise. It is but fair to say that the
theatrical criticisms of the Age, for which notori-
ous journal not many people certainly not the
"fashionables" had a good word, were in later years
honest and outspoken, whether praise or blame, and


afford better reading than those in the daily

Despite Vestris's indifference to what is called the
" value " of money she had the strong business instinct
which is at the bottom of most successful enterprises.
There was evidence of this in her nine seasons at the
Olympic. She established a disregarded and not
particularly flourishing theatre on a solid basis and
made it the most-sought-after place of amusement in
the metropolis. To-day, when gorgeous spectacle
after spectacle has brought about a sense of satiation
and even boredom, we cannot imagine the effect which
Vestris's innovations had upon the public and upon
stage-craft. Whether principally due to her or to
Planche, the fact remains that many of the so-
called novelties of recent times were anticipated at
the Olympic, even to revues, two of which Planche

Covent Garden Theatre possessed an immense
advantage over the Olympic. The Olympic was
" cribbed, cabined, and confined." Drury Lane and
Covent Garden, by virtue of their patents, had the
privilege of being open all the year round and any
sort of dramatic entertainment could be produced.
The Haymarket could only be opened for the drama
during the summer. No other than these could
perform anything but burlettas. The Lyceum was
specially licensed for English opera and musical operas
(there seems to have been no objection to boxing
entertainments, and the theatre was so used for this
purpose more than once) ; and at the Adelphi and
Olympic burlettas alone could be performed. At
Astley's, the Savoy, Sadler's Wells, no one had a legal
right to open his mouth on the stage unaccompanied
by music. Sometimes prosecutions for evasion of
these restrictions were instituted, but magistrates
were loth to commit and the managers of the patent
theatres gradually dropped their opposition ; but it
was still open to the common informers to proceed if


it paid them to do so. As already mentioned, the
manager of the Fitzroy in Tottenham Street was
prosecuted and fined. The Strand Theatre, however,
openly defied the law for nearly two years.

The absurdity of the restrictions became still more
absurd in the time of Lent, and, as Planche points out,
during the Lenten season the theatres in the parish
of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, were rigorously restricted
from the performance of a moral or poetical play on
Wednesdays or Fridays during that period ; but a
theatre that happened to be on the other side of Oxford
Street or of Waterloo Bridge was unaffected. The
performers at Drury Lane and Covent Garden lost
two nights' salary every week, but they could go to
Greenwich or Richmond and act what they pleased
there. Passion Week was unknown in the theatres
two or three miles from St. James's Palace.

In entering upon possession of Covent Garden,
Vestris's shrewdness and experience must have con-
vinced her that the size of the building, its connection
with the higher walks of the drama, and the character
of the audiences accustomed to assemble within its
walls had to be seriously considered. The kind of
entertainment suitable for the " Olympic parlour "
would not do for the arena of Covent Garden, if only
on the score of expense. The cost of producing
an Olympic fairy extravaganza would be doubled.
Even were such a production deemed expedient,
it was doubtful whether the larger theatre would
draw sufficient of the Olympic crowd to pay for the

Apart from this, it is pretty clear that Madame had
an eye for a programme which would attract the serious
as well as the frivolous playgoer. Shakespeare, she
conceived, was the safest line to take. The old
comedies were more or less in the nature of revivals,
but Shakespeare was ever fresh, provided an adequate
cast could be found. Playgoers then would crowd
to see a new Hamlet, a new Macbeth, and this was


Madame's difficulty. Edmund Kean was dead, and the
only man of eminence to succeed him was Macready.
But Macready was unavailable, and had he not been it
is doubtful whether Vestris would have offered him
an engagement. Moreover, his stilted style was not
attractive, and, what was worse, certain mannerisms
were obvious, and, as generally happens with imitation,
the mannerisms were reproduced by others, who could
not see that they were defects and not excellences.

The chief obstacle, however, lay in the fact that
Vestris and Macready were in a sense rivals. Mac-
ready's management of Covent Garden was a failure ;
a woman's might be a success. In comparing the
two the Satirist wrote on June I2th, 1840 : " The
pretensions of Vestris are of a much higher order, in
whatever way we may look at them, than those foisted
upon us by Macready ; he is a mere pretender a
charlatan in art ; she is clever, a thinking, a very supe-
rior woman What Vestris has done for the

dramas she has brought out at this theatre has been
in the way of embellishment she could do no more ;
she could give the form, but it was impossible to impart
the soul. Now Macready attempted both ; he, good
easy man, not only embellished the plays he brought
forward at Covent Garden, but attempted the spirit
also that is he resorted to unusual diligence to teach
the performers about him to talk on the stage in the
same way that he is wont to do himself, and those who
visited the theatre under his management saw not
one Macready but a dozen or rather some dozen men
and womdn ape-ing the ' disjointed chat ' of the King
Raven who had only to flutter his wings to set on the
whole flight to 4 win exclamations from the few and
laughs from the many.' '

A Shakespearean " star " being beyond her reach,
Madame had to do the best with the material at her
disposal. She hardly made a happy choice in selecting
Love's Labour's Lost. The comedy had the doubtful
advantage of not having been acted for a generation,


and maybe she thought people would come out of
curiosity, or perhaps she chose it because it gave her
a chance of continuing her Olympic programme of
elaborate scenery and appointments. She had an
eye, however, to her own particular patrons, and
advertised that she " intended to devote one evening
each week to the performance of those entertainments
which for so many years have constituted the attrac-
tion of the Olympic Theatre." She also made an
announcement which reads curiously nowadays. " The
gas," it runs, " has been entirely removed and replaced
by wax candles " an expensive process which no doubt
found its place in the heavy bills which gradually
accumulated during the next two years. Be this
as it may, it can hardly be doubted that wax candles,
provided there were enough of them, were preferable
to the bad gas and imperfect appliances of those days.

September 3oth, 1839, was fixed for the opening
night. The theatre was densely crowded, but the
gods were outraged because the shilling gallery had
been made into an eighteen-penny one and their
wrath marred the success of the evening. They " filled
the lower gallery to suffocation," says Mr. James
Anderson, who was the Biron of the play, " and the
demonstrations of indignation were terrific. The
comedy was interrupted, often stopped, and all but
* damned ' by the tremendous noise and uproar. At
length, after many fruitless attempts to be heard
and apologise, a man carrying a placard on a pole
gave the malcontents to understand that the shilling
gallery should be opened the following night. After
three hearty cheers from the conquerors, the play was
allowed to proceed and finish. This came too late,
for the poor play had received its quietus in the very
first act."

This was a disheartening beginning, but the initial
mistake was in selecting Love's Labour's Lost, a play
as unfamiliar to the audience as it was to the actors
and in itself possessing no opportunity for indivi-


duality and individuality to the Shakespearean public
of that day was everything. The eighteenth and early-
nineteenth-century playgoers knew their favourite
Shakespearean tragedies and comedies by heart, and
they were more concerned with John Kemble, George
Frederick Cooke, Edmund Kean, Mrs. Siddons,
Miss O'Neill, and other " stars " than with the play
itself. They had the established traditional " busi-
ness " at their fingers' ends. They watched keenly
for new readings and new interpretations of famous
lines, and found a pleasure in comparing them with
the old ones and in discussing their merits.

In Love's Labour's Lost they were without this
pleasure. The comedy is- comparatively colourless.
Interest is not concentrated in any particular character.
The company was full of talent, represented as it
was by Anderson, Keeley, Bartley, Meadows, Cooper,
Vining, Mrs. Nisbett, Mrs. Humby, Miss Rainforth,
Madame herself, and others ; but it was not a company
identified with Shakespeare, while the shortcomings
of the play itself were scarcely compensated by Grieve' s
beautiful scenery, Planche's accurate and picturesque
costumes, and the gorgeous colouring and general
effect due to Vestris's artistic conception.

Love's Labour's Lost was a failure and was withdrawn
after a few nights, and Madame Vestris and her hus-
band found that the receipts from the plays put on
as stop-gaps " were," writes Charles Mathews, " not
only insufficient to meet the great expenses of the
theatre, but utterly destructive of all hopes of repaying
the previous losses and liabilities." A solicitor friend
advised the winding-up of the enterprise, and Mathews
was seriously considering this policy, while Madame
occupied herself with the preparation of a novelty
which she saw was the only thing if successful to
save them. Sheridan Knowles was the dramatic
poet of the day. His Hunchback and Virginius had
brought him into prominence, and he was at that
moment engaged on a play in blank verse. This


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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 19 of 24)