Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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being, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Castle of
Otranto, and M. G. Lewis's Monk formed favourite
reading, while lurid plays after the fashion of " Monk "
Lewis's Rugantio drew crowded audiences. The
subject of the Christmas entertainment at Covent
Garden was consequently familiar enough and the
burlesque did very well. The pantomime, it should
be noted, was simply a panorama followed by a harle-
quinade. The time for elaborated " openings " of
perverted nursery-tales with gorgeous transforma-
tion scenes and attenuated harlequinades had not

The most important event of the season 1840-1 was
the production on March 4th, 1841, of Boucicault's
London Assurance, a comedy which even now has not
wholly lost its attraction, though it does not appeal
to the Londoner of to-day as it did to the Londoner
of 1841. London Assurance was announced as having
been written by Mr. Lee Moreton, but it was soon
known that Moreton was a nom de theatre for Bourci-
cault, afterwards spelt Boucicault. His real name was

By one of the misunderstandings peculiar to the
stage, in which everybody is right and everybody wrong,
an impression gained ground that Mr. John Brougham
was author or part author of the play. John Coleman,
in his Players and Playwrights, says : " When London
Assurance was sent in, it was a crude, inchoate, in-
vertebrate sketch. The author was young, and at that
time docile, and glad to accept any hint from the
eminent artists who supplied the unrivalled cast.
He was also ready to cut, slash, alter, or turn the
work inside out, if it were necessary. In point of
fact, although the play was written by Boucicault,
it was edited by Charles Mathews & Co. Apropos,
one of the canards which obtained years ago was
that John Brougham had collaborated with D. B.
in the production. During the run of that delight-
ful play, Arrah-na-Pogue, at the Princess's, I asked


Brougham if there was any truth in the rumour ; his
reply was, ' Not the slightest.' '

Anderson (Life of an Actor) gives a different version
of the story. " When the comedy," he writes, " was
first put into rehearsal, John Brougham and Dion
Boucicault appeared as the joint-authors. But soon
* a change came o'er the spirit of their dream '
there was a hitch somewhere. The original Dazzle
was written for an Irishman, and John Brougham was
to have played the part. Then it was discovered there
would be nothing for Charles Mathews to do in the
comedy. The consequence was, the part had to be
rewritten for the manager. This produced un desa-
grement betwixt the authors. At length an arrange-
ment was made that Brougham, * for a consideration,'
should relinquish his share in the authorship to Bouci-
cault, and resign the part of Dazzle to Mathews. What
the real nature of the arrangement was I never could
make out. I have a distinct recollection, however,
that on the first night the comedy was acted there
were calls for the author."

The reports in the newspapers confirm this to the
effect that " Vestris got into a towering passion
when John Brougham presented himself at the wing
to go on with Boucicault. This she would not
permit, and indignantly ordered him to go away,
giving instructions to the ' green-coats ' (stage-keepers)
to prevent him appearing on the stage." On the
twentieth night the comedy was announced in the
bills as having been written by D. L. Bourcicault, as
he at that time spelt his name.

The cast an excellent one of London Assurance
was as follows : Sir Hartley Courtley, W. Farren ;
Charles Courtley, Anderson ; Max Harkaway, Bartley ;
Dolly Spanker, Keeley ; Dazzle, Mathews ; Mark
Meddle, Harley ; Grace Harkaway, Vestris ; Lady
Gay Spanker, Mrs. Nisbett ; Pert, Mrs. Humby.

Of these Charles Mathews was the best. The part
of Dazzle fitted him like a glove, and few actors who


have impersonated the character have approached him.
Vestris was also well suited in Grace Harkaway. The
piece ran fifty-nine nights, the number also of the
run of A Midsummer- Night's Dream.

The Easter extravaganza was Beauty and the Beast,
Vestris, of course, personating the first, and Bland,
who excelled in the mock-heroic, the second.



Managerial difficulties. Vestris dependent upon old successes.
The debut of Adelaide Kemble. Her instant triumph in Norma.
Great success of Douglas Jerrold's Bubbles of the Day. Jules Benedict
Adelaide Kemble's protege. Vestris projects the presentation of
Comus and Purcell's King Arthur. Macready, alarmed, issues a counter-
blast. Madame joins battle. An angry controversy. Comus pro-
duced at Covent Garden. A wonderful spectacle. Leffler the bass
singer. How Balfe let him down. Vestris as Cherubino in The
Marriage of Figaro. The first performance of the opera on the English
stage in a complete state. A bomb-shell from Charles Kemble.
Mathews and Vestris receive notice to give up possession of Covent
Garden. Allegations of arrears of rent due. The lease forfeited.
The farewell performance. The Morning Post a champion of Vestris.

SEPTEMBER 1841 found the management without any
novelty in view. Had there been one the impoverished
exchequer would hardly have warranted expenditure
of the money which Vestris loved to lavish on a new
production. She played her trump cards, A Mid-
summer-Night's Dream and London Assurance, during
the first month of the season ; and having nothing to
supplant them she was compelled to continue until
Christmas, when the pantomime-extravaganza Guy
Earl of Warwick, or Harlequin and the Dun Cow was in
readiness. This was highly successful, and Payne as
clown and a legitimate successor of Grimaldi made a
hit. The writer of the notice in one paper declared
it to be " the best we have seen since the days of
Harlequin Gulliver now turned twenty-four years ago."
Another notice pays a warm tribute to the care and
completeness of the stage management. " Covent
Garden," it ran, " is the very nursery of a playhouse


there is not a joint in its boards, a flap in its scenery,
a twinkle in its lights, which is not replete with mechan-
ism, and effects follow each other with a rapidity and
a precision that defy calculation in the proportion
they excite astonishment."

The pantomime could be relied upon to last until
February, but what was to follow gave much ground
for anxiety. New operas were talked about, but
nothing materialised. Then came the advent of an
operatic star which put a new complexion upon things.
Miss Adelaide Kemble came and sang and conquered.
Her appearance was no doubt due to the influence
of her father, Charles Kemble, who was one of the
proprietors of the theatre. Norma was the opera
selected for her debut (January i6th, 1842) on the
English stage, and she won an instant triumph. The
treasury recovered, and Charles Mathews calculated
he would, to use his own words, " at length emancipate
myself from debt and have solid hope for the future."
But, he adds, little did Miss Kemble " imagine that
her triumph would be my ruin, but so it turned out."

However, for the time being Vestris and her husband
basked once more in the sunshine of prosperity and
put on a new comedy, 'The Irish Heiress, by Boucicault.
The play was not received with favour. It was pro-
nounced " vulgar " and the part Vestris undertook
was declared to be unsuitable. But there was nothing
but praise for the mounting. " Unless the spectator,"
said one newspaper, " goes and beholds and judges
for himself he would be loth to believe such a perfect
identity with the salons, boudoirs, dressing-rooms,
dining-rooms of our very best houses could be con-
trived. . . . Not a toilet or a tapis is incomplete."

Mere furniture and accurate appointments never
yet saved a play, and The Irish Heiress soon met its
fate, to be followed by a new comedy which had quite
a different fortune. This was Douglas Jerrold's
Bubbles of the Day. Jerrold had found a subject which
lent itself admirably to his mordant wit and he made


the most of it. Vestris was not in the cast, but she
had an excellent substitute in Mrs. Orger. Charles
Mathews also was in his element in a part which
displayed his airiness perfectly. All the critics were
full of praise.

Meanwhile Adelaide Kemble was drawing the
crowd. The theatrical public in those days wanted
plenty for their money. The evening's entertainment
generally lasted four hours at the very least. The
" half-pricers " had to be considered. A fair sample
bill was Elena Uberti, a mediocre opera by Mercadante
with Adelaide Kemble, The Critic, and Charles
Mathews in an afterpiece Charles the Twelfth. Some-
times the piece de resistance alone was mentioned and
the evening was filled up with " other entertainments."
Apropos of Elena Uberti, the fashion of the times in
dragging in other composers' music to suit the prima
donna or for other reasons was adhered to. In this
case a scena by Pacini was introduced, while a new
finale was written by Jules Benedict, the first time
probably that the future popular composer, who made
his home in England, had any of his music performed
in this country. Benedict was a protege of Adelaide
Kemble's. In a letter dated July 23rd, 1 841 , to Charles
Mathews relative to her engagement at Covent Garden
she writes : " Do tell me if you would be willing to
engage a most able friend of mine as director of the
music at your theatre ? Benedict was a pupil of
Weber's, is himself an excellent composer and a most
conscientious artist and gentlemanlike person. I
think it would be a great thing to have him. Will
you let me know what you think of this suggestion ? "
Apparently Charles Mathews adopted it.

If Vestris were disposed to be irritable at this time,
she had ample justification. Her anxieties were
increasing and the production of a novelty of the
spectacular kind was a vital necessity. She could only
shine amid brilliant surroundings, and comedies did
not suffice. The public were thoroughly familiar


with her old triumphs in this direction. Spectacle
combined with her personality must be the two princi-
pal factors in any fresh venture. She had formed this
combination in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, and
The Masque of Comus suggested another. She had in
her mind a third Purcell's King Arthur, but Comus
was decided upon and preparations made. When
the matter was first talked over, Tom Cooke was her
musical director and she was bound to consult him.
Shortly after he transferred his services from Covent
Garden to Drury Lane, then under the management
of Macready, who had opened it with a magniloquent
programme of drama and English opera which he
failed to carry out. It is more than likely that Cooke,
without any intention of forestalling Vestris's plans,
may have mentioned to Macready what was in the
air at the rival house, and to Madame' s annoyance
Macready announced for future production not only
Comus but King Arthur \

Upon this the lady gave battle and issued an address
through the newspaper " to the Public." She pointed
out " that a new arrangement was commenced during
the recess with the view of being brought forward at
the beginning of the present season. Unforeseen
circumstances occasioned its postponement until the
Christmas pantomime necessarily superseded it, and
meanwhile not only Comus was advertised as forth-
coming at Drury Lane, but by a singular coincidence
Dryden's opera of King Arthur, which had been
brought under the consideration of this management
by another person. It is not the practice at this
theatre," she went on, " to advertise dramas till the
time positively fixed for their production, as circum-
stances continually occur which might compel the
management to break faith with the public ; at the
same time it is not thought necessary to relinquish
preconceived ideas or change determinations (formed
without reference to any other establishment) in
consequence of the announcement of revivals of


the regular and popular dramas of the British stage
as much the property of one theatre as the

The allusion to Macready not by name but as
a " person " was a feminine thrust which showed the
intensity of Madame' s anger, and she hurried on the
production of Comus. It appeared on March 8th, and
was mounted with the usual lavishness and received
with delight. Vestris aimed at a spectacular effect
which she knew well enough was beyond Macready' s
capacity, and, perhaps in order to mortify her rival,
she spent more money on the piece than the result
warranted. Vestris herself was the " cynosure of all
eyes." The Post wrote : " The entry of the Baccha-
nalian subjects in the beginning of the piece is gorgeous
and characteristic in the extreme, heightened to the
utmost degree by the perfect abandonment thrown
into the first Bacchante by Madame Vestris, who in
manner, dress, joyous yet graceful action seemed the
very perfection of joyous revelry."

Leffler, a powerful bass singer, who was a great
favourite, especially in boisterous ditties, was an ideal
leader of " tipsy dance and jollity " and he gave forth
the well-known " Now Phoebus sinketh in the west "
with immense gusto. The audience probably knew
his taste for the flowing bowl. If they did not, it
was hardly the fault of Balfe, who on one occasion
gave him away completely. Balfe had put on an
English opera called Scaramaccia, and Leffler was to
take the leading part. He failed to turn up, but wrote
to Balfe, who, on the audience expressing in their
customary emphatic way their disapprobation at the
long " wait," came down to the footlights to give an
explanation which was couched in these terms :

" Ladies and gentlemen, I hardly know what to
say, but perhaps the best thing I can do is to read
the letter of Mr. Leffler, who was to have sustained
the part of Scaramaccia but who did not attend rehear-
sal and who has thus excused himself to-night :


Dear Balfe, I'm very sorry to declare it,
But I have drunk so much claret

That I can't play to-night, d n it.

Yours faithfully, Adrian Leffler."

It was not a very nice thing for Balfe to do, as the
letter was a private one, but consideration for others
was never the outstanding virtue of the theatrical

Macready certainly showed a grasping, selfish spirit
towards Vestris in trying, as a showman would say, to
" queer her pitch." He did not produce Comus
until some time after, and in no way did Vestris's
version, which was almost entirely musical, clash with
Macready's. The tragedian as Comus was all in all,
or believed himself to be so, and the production was
mainly histrionic. In respect to King Arthur, the
case was different. Cooke packed as much music
as he could find in Purcell's operas other than Bonduca,
the original of King Arthur, but it was not put on
the stage until November i6th, 1842. Macready's
announcement a year and a half before of what he was
going to do and making it appear that an immediate
production was contemplated can only be considered
as a piece of sharp practice. However, one must
be grateful that sooner or later he did bring out the
opera, as it gave to Sims Reeves in " Come if you dare "
his first chance of displaying his glorious voice and
furnished the stepping-stone to his subsequent wonder-
ful career as the finest tenor of his or any other age.

On March i6th came a notable revival of 'The
Marriage of Figaro, Adelaide Kemble playing Susanna
and Vestris, Cherubino. This was the first time that
the opera had been put on the English stage in a com-
plete state. This was much to Madame' s credit, for
in past times, influenced by the debased taste of the
day, she had, as already recorded, played sad tricks
with the opera. But even in this excellent performance
poor Mozart was not allowed to have his own way.
Why was Susanna permitted to sing " Voi che sapete"


the exclusive property of Cherubino ? The cast was
hardly perfect. Susanna did not suit Miss Kemble
as well as Norma ; Vestris, while otherwise charming
as Cherubino, was too pert for the realisation of the
character ; Leffler was a too boisterous and joyous
Figaro, and Russell (a new bass singer could it have
been Henry Russell ?) was too staid. Shortcomings
notwithstanding the opera was continued until Easter,
when the last of the Covent Garden extravaganzas,
The White Cat, was produced.

Despite the various successes of 1841-2, the burden
of debt had never been lightened. There was a deficit
of some 600 in the payment of the rent of several
thousands, " and," writes Planche, " with the usual
liberality and good policy of the proprietors of theatres
in general, Madame Vestris, who had raised Covent
Garden once more to the rank it had held in the days
of the Kembles, and paid her heavy rent to the shilling
during two brilliant seasons, was denied the oppor-
tunity of recouping herself from losses caused by a
most exceptional circumstance, and coolly bowed out
of the building." In a word, the proprietors of
the theatre demanded their pound of flesh and took
legal proceedings to recover it. This meant the
ruination of Vestris' s enterprise.

It was characteristic of feminine intuition that
before disaster arrived Vestris had a foreboding as to
what was going to happen and why. Planche recounts
how " when dining with her and Charles Mathews
Madame Vestris said abruptly after a short silence,
* Charles, we shall not have the theatre next year.'
' What do you mean ? ' he and I exclaimed simultane-
ously. l Simply what I say.' ' But what reason,'
inquired Mathews, ' can you possibly have for thinking
so ? ' * No particular reason ; but you'll see.' ' Have
you heard any rumour to that effect ? ' I asked. ' No ;
but we shall not have the theatre.' * But who on
earth will have it, then ? ' we said, laughing at the
idea ; for we could imagine no possible competitor

(From a letter to Montagu Gore.).



likely to pay so high a rent. ' Charles Kemble,' was
her answer. * He will think that his daughter's
talent and popularity will be quite sufficient, and we
shall be turned out of the theatre. But,' she con-
tinued, seeing us still incredulous, * three things may
happen. Miss Kemble may be ill ; Miss Kemble may
not get another opera like Norma ; and Miss Kemble
may marry.' Every one of these predictions was
fulfilled. The rent not being fully paid up according
to the conditions of her lease, it was declared for-
feited ; and Mr. Charles Kemble took the theatre
himself upon his own shoulders."

The final performance took place on April 3Oth,
when La Sonnambula, Patter v. Clatter, and The White
Cat were given. On Charles Mathews appearing on
the stage in Patter v. Clatter, of which piece he was
the author, the greeting was incessant and protracted,
and the applause was renewed after he had delivered
a farewell address, in the course of which he said in
reference to the theatre :

" My partner and I have been its directors for
three years, during which time we have endeavoured,
at much personal and pecuniary sacrifice, to sow the
seeds of that solid prosperity which would, we hoped,
one day, manifest itself in permanent satisfaction to
you, and in a golden harvest to ourselves ; but alas
for the mutability of human affairs ! Our first season
was merely sowing our second little more than hoeing
and, though the third has been growing, we must
leave to other hands the fourth, which might have been
our mowing. Why we have felt it our duty to quit
these premises, I will not intrude upon you to explain.
Suffice it to say, that in quitting them, we leave not
only our business, but our good-will to our successor ;
and if, ladies and gentlemen, that successor should
prove to be a gentleman the admired representative
of that thrice-honoured theatrical family, another
gifted daughter of whose gifted house it is our pride
to have brought so triumphantly under your notice


in that case, ladies and gentlemen, I can only say that,
as far as one manager can forgive another, it will afford
us much consolation should the change prove to be
for his and your gain."

After Mr. Mathews had retired, calls for Madame
Vestris were heard in every part of the house, and
" she appeared, led on by her husband, in the
dress of the character she sustained in the after-
piece, whereupon the whole audience rose en
masse and vehemently cheered her. In a few
minutes the stage was covered with chaplets of
flowers, directed towards her from the boxes nearest
the proscenium. Several of these she picked up, and
pressed to her lips with an emotion that she could not

The attitude of playgoers towards Eliza Vestris
was one of affection as much as admiration. For
twenty years she had been their darling, and whatever
may have been her foibles and weaknesses privately,
she had ever been staunch to her public. Her claims
to their regard rested on her sincerity and on her
freedom from ostentatious pretension. No theatrical
management had ever equalled hers for complete-
ness and conscientious fulfilment of promises. The
farceur spirit which Elliston could never resist was
not hers. She was without the arrogance, the mean-
ness, and the overweening vanity of Macready. She
had not a particle of the impudent charlatanism of
Alfred Bunn. Charles Kemble was an ignoramus
certainly as regarded matters operatic and Stephen
Kemble a blunderer. Drury Lane under Price sank
to mediocrity and reached its lowest depth with
Captain Polhill, a debauchee, and his servile assistant
Alexander Lee. Vestris purified and elevated the
English stage, and to think that after her unceasing
efforts in the direction of art she should be ousted from
her position through a piece of sharp practice dictated
by rapacity must have been galling in the extreme.
No wonder the heartfelt sympathy of the last audience


she was fated to delight at Covent Garden Theatre
affected her deeply.

This sympathy was not her only solace. She could
not have been otherwise than intensely gratified at
the tribute to her talents and her personality paid
to her by the Morning Post the day before her farewell
performance. Only of a histrionic artist of exceptional
merit would one speak in such glowing terms, and it
is but right to reproduce the article in full as a matter
of justice to Madame Vestris, about whom the average
playgoer of to-day knows very little and probably still
less of the great services she rendered in the advance-
ment of the English stage.

The article, it will be noted, is more than a tribute.
It gives the circumstances under which Mr. and
Mrs. Mathews were compelled to quit the theatre,
and as such deserves to be placed on record :

" To-morrow night Madame Vestris takes (with a
benefit) her farewell of the Covent Garden stage a
stage she has both refined and adorned and we will
not suffer the occasion to pass without paying a
valedictory tribute to her claims as a lady and an
actress upon a public she has more delighted than any
individual of her time.

" Preliminarily, however, let us state what we have
heard as to the pecuniary disputes which have ended
in this most-to-be-regretted result. The rent condi-
tioned to be annually paid for the theatre was 7,500,
with (we are informed) a verbal understanding that if
the sum of .5,000 were actually paid in each year, Mr.
Mathews was not to be molested for the difference.
More than .15,000 have positively been paid during
the three years' lesseeship for rent, and in addition
a sum little if any short of 14,000 for properties,
the value of which, however much it may benefit
the theatre itself, cannot in any way be converted
to the advantage of Madame Vestris or her husband.
Independently of these facts, we aregiven to understand
that neither of them have drawn their own salaries,


although everybody else in the establishment has
been paid in full. We make this statement upon
authority we deem to be conclusive of its truth, and
we are sorry to be obliged to add that from the same
source we hear that in violation of the fulfilled verbal
agreement one of the proprietors of Covent Garden
Theatre has sued Mr. Charles Mathews upon the
legal document, a step which has compelled both

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 21 of 24)