Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

. (page 20 of 24)
Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 20 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

play Love, as it was called was selected, and was
produced on November loth, 1839.

Vestris had a part in the drama suited to her powers
and enabling her to display herself in male habiliments.
Perhaps it was this which attracted her and which she
hoped would also attract the public, otherwise the
play had no special merit. " Mrs. Mathews," one
critic writes, " as Katherine had the only part which
gave relief to the play and her assumption of the
knight was excellent. She looked in her male attire
as young and as handsome as ever she was."

Westland Marston gives an analysis of her acting
which brings the character before us : " Madame
Vestris," he says, " was quite in her element. She
had to stimulate, often in male disguise, a sincere but
slow and taciturn lover ; to send him on her errands,
and jest at his delay or non-attention ; to reflect on his
courage, challenge him to fight, and then cleverly
evade the meeting. In her disguise of a young gallant,
to affect to him that she (Katherine) had broken her
ankle and limped, that her wrist went ' zig-zag,'
that her complexion was ruined, that she had squan-
dered her wealth ; to exult, with a roguish smile, that
his honest heart was still faithful to her, then once
more to quarrel and order him to his knees, and, when
the incensed knight at last rebelled, to throw off her
page-ship's cloak, and reveal his tormenting but loving
Katherine this was comedy, not very brilliant, and
at last, rather tiresome, but quite suited to Madame
Vestris comedy in which she delighted." The press
notices were rather inclined to damn the play with
faint praise, and, truth to tell, it is somewhat dull
reading. But Sheridan Knowles was looked upon by
many as running nearer to Shakespeare than any of
his contemporary dramatists, and the reception of
Love was uproarious and loud cries of " Author ! " were
raised at the fall of the curtain " a vulgar custom,"
wrote the Age, in disgust, " first encouraged by Mr.
Dickens and last by Sir E. Bulwer."


Sheridan Knowles, it must be confessed, was much
more amusing as a personality with his pure and un-
adultered Irishisms than in anything he ever wrote.
His " bulls " were delightful. Planche records how
one day he said to Abbott (an actor long connected
with Covent Garden and afterwards manager of a
Dublin theatre), with whom he had been acting in the
country, " My dear fellow, I'm off to-morrow. Can
I take any letters for you ? " " You're very kind,"
said Abbott, " but where are you going ? " " I
haven't made up my mind" Another time, meeting
O. Smith, the famous actor of lurid parts in the Adelphi
melodramatic days and so called from his impersona-
tion of " Obi " in Three-fingered Jack, in the Strand,
he seized him by the hand, shook it heartily and
inquired affectionately after his health. Smith knew
Knowles only by sight and had never spoken to him,
and remarked, " I think, Mr. Knowles, you're mis-
taking me for somebody else. I am O. Smith."
" My dear fellow," cried Knowles, " I beg you ten
thousands pardons I took you for your namesake
T. P. Cooke ! "

Despite the languid praise of the press, Love proved
fairly acceptable to the public, but the treasury did
not overflow and things began to look black when
Vestris by a happy thought put on as an afterpiece
to Love that ever-present refuge in the time of trouble
The Beggar's Opera. The opera was no novelty.
It had been presented in divers forms from time to
time since 1728. The various Macheaths and Follies
were innumerable. As the rollicking highwayman,
Vestris had made her name. It would seem to her
the last thing to revive the fortunes of an embarrassed
management. Yet it had done this not once but
many times, and probably Madame thought it might
do so once more.

Vestris had seen The Beggar's Opera put on the
stage often and often, and it must have been repugnant
to her artistic sense when a dull-witted or cheeseparing


manager treated the early eighteenth-century play
as though it had been written the day before yesterday
and dressed it accordingly. This kind of thing had
been tolerated by audiences because they knew no
better and had seen nothing different. Vestris thought
for herself and now had a chance of putting her
thoughts into action. She produced the opera with
the costumes of the day when Lavinia Fenton as Polly
Peachum captured all hearts. The experiment was
an instant success. At last the public had a complete
picture not only of the opera but of the times. " In
an instant," writes Charles Mathews, " to the surprise
of everyone, ourselves included, up went the receipts,
the houses were crammed, and a long and successful
career was the consequence. The corner was turned,
the public responded to our efforts, and we sailed
once more before the wind."

The cast of this revival was a notable one. Mr. W.
Harrison, afterwards of the Pine and Harrison English
Operatic Company, was Macheath, Miss Rainforth,
destined to sing in the same opera years later with Sims
Reeves, was Polly, Mr. W. Farren, Peachum, Mr.
Bartley, Locket, Mr. Harley, Filch, and Lucy, Madame
Vestris. Perhaps the best tribute to Vestris's success was
the fact that the Drury Lane management should in
rivalry put on the opera also with costumes of the
proper date and with Mrs. Keeley as Macheath. Mrs.
Keeley had made a huge success in a " breeches part "
as Jack Sheppard and was in every respect a capable
actress, but she could not drive from the public's
mind its recollection of Vestris in the same character,
and the popularity of the Covent Garden version of
the opera was not in any way impaired. It is in-
teresting to read in the Age, considering its insults
in times gone by, that Vestris " only escaped playing
Lucy to perfection because she could not appear
but as a gentlewoman even when she tries."

The failure of Love's Labour's Lost did not turn
Vestris from her designs on Shakespeare. The Merry


Wives of Windsor was her next venture, and herein
she was successful. Mrs. Page she had played many
times before, and she was admirably supported by
Mrs. Nisbett as Mrs. Ford. Mathews was Slender,
Bartley, Falstaff, and Miss Rainforth, as Anne Page,
sang charmingly. The pantomime produced proving
popular, continued the prosperity. This prosperity,
however, was only on the surface. Charles Mathews
says pathetically : " The greater the success the worse
I found my position. As soon as the money began to
flow in my sufferings became almost intolerable. At
the first sniff of blood the tigers were let loose. While
I paid no one, no one seemed to care, but the moment
Jenkins got his money, Jones became rampant. ' Why
pay Jenkins ? Why not pay me ? You've used me
shamefully and you must take the consequences.'
Multiply the Jenkinses by ten and the Joneses by
hundreds, and the sum-total of persecution may be
conceived. Writs and executions showered upon
me, and the whole proceeds of our country engage-
ments were swallowed up by the ravenous Jenkinses
and Joneses without in any way appeasing their
cravings." One is almost tempted to think, re-
membering Charles Mathews' s reputation in money
matters in later life, that he took this lesson to heart
and carried it out practically. He did his best to
live in an ideal world where creditors ceased from
troubling and debtors were at rest !



Production of Leigh Hunt's Legend of Florence. State visits of
Royalty. A bad time for Shakespeare. Vestris's disputes with Sheri-
dan Knowles and Samuel Lover. Madame carries her point. A
Midsummer-Night's Dream Vestris's wonderful triumph. A Shake-
spearean revelation. Madame's liberality. Her excellent manage-
ment behind the curtain. VandenhofPs tribute. Madame not to be
dictated to. Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto as a pantomime.
Production of Boucicault's London Assurance. An enormous success.
Its curious inner history.

MATHEWS'S whimsical account of the worries which
prosperity brought in its train may be taken with
the proverbial grain of salt. Neither he nor Madame
was addicted to prudence when Fortune smiled, and
they failed to free themselves from the burden of
debt as others more level-headed might have done.
The pantomime of 1839-40, Harlequin and the Merrie
Devil of Edmonton, brought money into the treasury,
and the run of Love continuing, there was no necessity
to incur further expense in the production of novelties.
Meanwhile an actor of " serious " parts from whom
much was expected presented himself in a Mr. Moore.
To give him a chance, Hamlet, The School for Scandal,
The Hunchback, and John Bull were put on during
January and February 1840. Moore failed to realise
the hopes entertained and nothing further was heard
of him.

The marriage of Queen Victoria on February loth,
1840, was an event of the utmost interest, and Vestris
took advantage of the occasion to produce The For-
tunate Isles, a pageant for which Bishop provided



the music. A number of historic notabilities in the
nation's records ranging from Edward III to Nelson
were put on the stage to a musical accompaniment, the
chief singers being Miss Rainforth, W. Harrison,
and Madame herself. On the Queen's return to
London the management received a " royal command,"
and Her Majesty, accompanied by Prince Albert, paid
the theatre a state visit.

With March 1840 came Leigh Hunt's A Legend of
Florence. It was not an unqualified success. The
great poets of the early nineteenth century Byron,
Shelley, Coleridge had tried their hands at writing
for the stage, but apparently they were not of the
stuff of which dramatists are made and Leigh Hunt
was no better. But he was satisfied with its reception
and also with the 200 he received, which he found
" a great refreshment to my sorry purse." He was
also much gratified by Queen Victoria and Prince
Albert witnessing the performance twice and by the
Queen expressing her satisfaction with it.

Hunt owed the introduction of the play to Madame
Vestris to his friend Mrs. Orger, and in his Autobio-
graphy he expressed his indebtedness " to the zealous
interest taken in it by those two cordial persons "
(Mr. and Mrs. Mathews), and " to the talents and
sympathy of Miss Ellen Tree, the tears down whose
glowing cheeks encouraged me while it was read and
who has since told me that she regarded the heroine
as her best performance." He remarks incidentally :
" Not that it did for me what I was told it might
have done had I let the husband retain his wife,
or had less money perhaps been laid out on its
getting up."

A Legend of Florence kept the bills during March,
interspersed with revivals of old favourites reminiscent
of the Olympic days, and the season was brought to
an end with Planche's fairy extravaganza, The Sleeping
Beauty of the Wood, to give the piece its full title,
which continued the theatre's prosperity. Vestris


played Princess Is-a-belle (the humour of the day
ran in the direction of puns more or less inane) and
she was the life and soul of the piece. The air was
full of " interesting " rumours apropos of Queen
Victoria's marriage, of which the author availed

" The burlesque," wrote the Satirist, " was one of
the best-conceived satires and certainly one of the
most brilliantly appointed spectacles ever brought
upon the boards. The Royal usages on occasions of
royal christenings were scrupulously adhered to, and
midst the bellowings of trombones, the agonies of
violoncellos, and the epilepsy of fiddles appropriately
thrown into convulsions by the roar of the bass drum,
which did duty for the Park guns, the theatrical
world was made aware of the awful fact of the solemni-
sation of the rite at the same moment that ' Lord-
High-Everything ' exclaimed * Thanks, ye slaves, the
Royal babby's got a name.' ' Topical allusions, if
apt, are always keenly appreciated, and as The Sleeping
Beauty was full of them and as the lines were pep-
pered with jokes, more or less bad, the extravaganza
caught on.

But there were people who expected from Madame
something more in keeping with one of the national
theatres something more solid than comedy, The
Beggar's Opera, and extravaganzas. The critic of
the Satirist was one of these punctilious persons, and
others may have thought with him. At the end of
the first season he solemnly admonished her in these
terms :

" The times are against her. There is a lack of
dramatic impulse though perhaps not of dramatic
feeling in the country. The public want something
better than second- and third-rate actors placed in
first-rate parts. . . . They want something to provoke
an appetite for Shakespeare. They want to see him
represented properly, and their own ideas of the great
bard, formed in the study, realised on the stage. Bring

(First draught of a letter to Montagu Gore.)



back the days of the elder Kean or of Siddons, and you
restore a wholesome taste for theatrical representation.
. . . Madame Vestris must seek for an O'Neill, a
Cooke, or a Kean ere she can command success in her
future management. . . . People are sick of the fustian
of Macready and the mechanical imitation and croak-
ing imbecility of Charles Kean. . . . The state of
the drama is lamentable, and why it is that we have
no prominent actors or actresses on the stage at the
present time is to be traced to there being perhaps
no school open as in all other branches of art for
teaching on recognised principles the rudiment of

Possibly : but Madame had her own ideas and her
own plans. She meant to have Shakespeare adequately
represented, but not by tragedians who were not
to be secured.

The season 1840-1 opened in September, a month
earlier than was customary, with The Sleeping Beauty,
which continued to attract for fifteen nights, and
together with its thirty-eight nights of the first
season constituted a record for this class of entertain-
ment. Then followed on September 2Oth a new play
by Sheridan Knowles, in connection with which
Madame Vestris showed her shrewdness and experience.
Sheridan Knowles called his drama John of Procida,
which Madame altered to The Bride of Messina,
greatly to the dramatist's dissatisfaction, so much so
that, according to report, he took the manuscript
away. Another rumour had it that Vestris expected
Knowles was writing her a comedy, and when a
tragedy was presented to her instead she waxed warm
and behaved rather rudely to the author, who walked
out of the theatre and went to the Haymarket to offer
it to Webster ; but that gentleman being out of the
way, Mr. Knowles returned home, where he found
a message couched in friendly terms from Madame
Vestris begging him to bring his play back to Covent


Commenting on this, thedge remarked : " Madame
was right. The choice of a title, one that the public
would readily understand, is a very important matter,
and in both cases Vestris was a better judge than Lover
and Knowles." Probably no one was more deficient
in judgment in everything that concerned himself
than Sheridan Knowles. He seemed to be unable
to discriminate between his good and his bad efforts.
Gerald Griffin, the author of The Collegian, upon which
Boucicault founded his Colleen Bawn, writing to
his brother, said, " Have you read Virginius ? It
will be worth your while to get it ; but if you would
retain the good opinion it will give you of Knowles,
don't read his Caius Gracchus. It is a poor piece of

ihe Bride of Messina had but a languid reception,
and Lover's Greek Boy met with no better fate. On
October 1 3th Blanche's version of Beaumont and
Fletcher's Spanish Curate was produced and ran for
twenty-one nights. Meanwhile Vestris, undeterred
by the failure of Love's Labour's Lost, was making pre-
parations for another Shakespearean revival of a
far more arduous character, but one completely to
her taste. She threw her whole heart into the pro-
duction of A Midsummer-Night's Dream, and achieved
a superb triumph. The care and study bestowed upon
the scenery and accessories, the sense of art and delicate
fancy which pervaded the play from beginning to end,
impressed the critics and delighted the public. Mr.
Dutton Cook has pointed out that for the first time
in this play Shakespeare was treated with respect,
and text and spirit preserved, and this opinion has
been endorsed by every manager who afterwards
ventured upon the play. The version of Madame
Vestris was the model they followed.

The press was unanimous in its praise. One critic
wrote : " A just, generous, and graceful homage has
been paid to Shakespeare, and the management is
entitled to our high approval of almost to invent a


fairyland for the stage to invest it with a dreamy spirit
to produce beautiful contrasts of scenery to people
it with an elfin world costumed with the fantastic
splendour which tells a tale of power, riches, and
romance." Other notices were equally laudatory.
The play was introduced by Mendelssohn's overture,
probably the first occasion on which this masterpiece
of youthful genius was performed amid appropriate
surroundings. Beethoven was also called upon, and
in the incantation, given by Vestris as Puck, one musical
critic " recognised the two-four movement in A minor
from one of that composer's symphonies so often
encored by the Philharmonic Society." Weber's
Preciosa was utilised for the ballet scenes, but to our
advanced taste it sounds like bathos " the only
musical encore of the evening was C. E. Horn's duet
1 I know a bank where the wild thyme grows ' " !

On the first night, November I7th, 1840, the en-
thusiasm of the audience mounted higher and higher
as the play proceeded, and the climax was reached
with the final scene which by Planche's happy thought
embodied the spirit of the lines :

Though the house give glimmering light,

By the dead and drowsy fire,
Every elf and fairy sprite

Hop as light as bird from brier ;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly.

The back of the stage by Grieve, the famous scene-
painter, Planche says, was so arranged that " at the
command of Oberon it was filled with fairies bearing
twinkling coloured lights dancing and flitting about
and altogether illustrating the text." The delight
of the audience knew no bounds, and Vestris at the
fall of the curtain was vociferously shouted for. It
is not too much to say that A Midsummer-Night's
Dream established Vestris's reputation as a theatrical


The year 1841 commenced with a recurrence of
monetary troubles. It was characteristic of both Ves-
tris and Charles Mathews not to let expense stand in
the way of completeness. Had they been less lavish
in the way of luxuries they might not have been landed
in difficulties. A weekly paper remarked at the begin-
ning of 1841 : " Mrs. Mathews is a very liberal lady.
She pays in advance, and many of our modern authors
are too happy to meet with such a generous creature."
Dramatists, company, artists, furniture- dealers,
were treated in the same open-handed manner.
The enormous rent charged by the lease-holders,
among whom was Charles Kemble, was the stumb-
ling-block. But even here, as will be seen when
the circumstances attending the collapse of her en-
terprise are recounted, Vestris acted up to her
word. She had extraordinary energy, and besides
being a born organiser, she saw to everything with
her own eye. VandenhofT, who played the " lead "
in 1841-2, says :

" Let it be recorded, to Vestris's honour, that she
was not only scrupulously careful not to offend pro-
priety by word or action, but she knew very well how
to repress any attempt at double -entendre or doubtful
insinuation in others. The green-room in Covent
Garden Theatre was a most agreeable lounging-place,
a divan adorned with beauties, where one could pass
a pleasant hour in the society of charming women and
men of gentlemanly manners, and from which was
banished every word or allusion that would not be
tolerated in a drawing-room. A man must be hard
to please who was not agreeably entertained, with
such gratification to ear and eye, as could be found
in the elegant society and ladylike conversation of
Ellen Tree, the sprightliness of Mrs. Nisbett, the
quaint humour of Mrs. Humby, besides the attractions
of a bevy of lesser beauties, the ' jesting spirit ' of
Harley, the amusing egotism of Farren, and the jokes,
repartees, anecdotes, and reminiscences of others ;


and this with the addition of a popular artist, or of
one or more dramatic author. . . .

" The first green-room in Covent Garden Theatre
was a withdrawing-room, carpeted and papered ele-
gantly ; with a handsome chandelier in the centre,
several globe lights at the sides, a comfortable divan,
covered in figured damask, running round the whole
room, large pier ornamental glasses on the walls,
and a full-length movable swing-glass ; so that, on
entering from his dressing-room, an actor could see
himself from head to foot at one view, and get back,
front, and side views by reflection, all round. . . .

" The green-room was exceedingly comfortable
during the Mathews and Vestris management. Indeed
I must pay them the compliment of saying that their
arrangements generally for the convenience of their
company, the courtesy of their behaviour to the
actors, and consideration for their comforts, formed
an example well worthy to be followed by managers
in general, who are not, I am sorry to say, usually
remarkable for those qualities. In fact, the reign
of Vestris and her husband might be distinguished
as the drawing-room management. On special occa-
sions the opening night of the season, for example,
or a ' Queen's ' visit tea and coffee were served in
the green-room ; and frequently between the acts,
some of the officers of the guard, or gentlemen in
attendance on the royal party, would be introduced,
which led, of course, to agreeable and sometimes advan-
tageous acquaintances."

Westland Marston writes much to the same effect.

It is not to be denied that Vestris had a temper
how could she have had her own way without one ?
And when she was put out everyone knew it. Westland
Marston tells how one night he entered late and found
that some accidental circumstance had provoked the
house. The whole audience had discovered that
Vestris was in an ill-humour. She passed through
her comic scenes " with a sullen brow and with a


haste and negligence so marked that unless she had
been the enfant gdtee of the house her almost con-
temptuous indifference might well have brought on
her an emphatic rebuke." She was not to be dictated
to by anyone.

The story goes that she once had occasion to find
fault with Zerbini, the leader of the Olympic orchestra,
who put on airs and declared that he would not be
led by Madame Vestris or any other directrice who
had chosen to place upon him the musical responsi-
bility of her establishment. To give emphasis to his
words, the leader flourished his fiddle-stick at Madame
in defiance, upon which the lady called in the police,
and finally Zerbini found himself en route for Bow
Street !

On the other hand, when she was in the mood no
one could be more adroit in making the retort cour-
teous. It is related that when she was playing at
the Norwich theatre, and there was a general disposi-
tion to encore her favourite song, " Pray, Goody,"
opposition to the popular call was offered in a rudely
strenuous manner from a private box, the sole occupant,
who was a person of local importance, giving himself
some very magisterial airs. However, the house was
too strong for him, and the song was repeated. As
soon as the singer came to the couplet

Remember when the judgment's weak,
The prejudice is strong,

she dwelt with retarded emphasis on the words, and,
turning to the side-box, dropped a charming little
curtsy. The consequence was that she had to sing
the song a third time.

The so-called pantomime of that year little more
than a harlequinade was based on Horace Walpole's
fustian romance The Castle of Otranto, and of the
production it was said that it could hardly be more
absurd than the original. Melodrama had come into


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20 22 23 24

Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 20 of 24)