Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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himself and Madame Vestris to vacate their theatrical
home and seek in a rival establishment the protection
and support they ought to have found in their own.

" We will not anticipate the judgment of the public
in this affair, but this we will state, that we know enough
of its sympathies with justly established favourites to
feel assured that a hearty and enthusiastic welcome
awaits the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mathews
within the walls of Drury Lane Theatre, whither
their new fortunes will shortly conduct them.

" What has not Madame Vestris done for the English
stage ? Let those who are close watchers of its phases
answer. She has banished vulgarity, coarse manners,
double -entendre, and impertinence from the boards
over which she presided, and in their place has evoked
the benefits that flow from a dramatic interpretation
of polished manners, refinement, and politeness.
Her green-room was the resort of the learned, the
witty, and the wise, a miniature picture of polite
and well-bred society whence a wholesome example
spread itself on all within its influence. Once com-
municated to the stage, it became communicable to
the public, and sure we are that a desirable tone of
refinement both in manners and conversation has
been extensively spread in private life by the lady-like
deportment and acting of Madame Vestris.

" To art she gave an impulse of no mean importance.
Witness the magnificent scenery, as appropriate as it
was beautiful, which her fine taste caused to be con-
tinually brought before the public. The mise en scene
was never perfect until Madame Vestris taught her

painters how to execute and the public how to appre-
ciate her own pictorial conceptions, and to her judg-
ment in this way the playgoing world has been indebted
for much of its theatrical enjoyment."

The unfortunate end of Vestris's strenuous efforts
at Covent Garden may be summed up in Charles
Mathews's words. " The theatre," he writes, " was
taken out of our hands, after three years of labour
and outlay to establish it, in order that others might
reap the expected harvest ; our property was all
confiscated to meet the alleged arrears of rent amount-
ing to ^14,000 the scenery, wardrobe, and properties
we had brought from the Olympic included and
we found ourselves adrift with nothing left but a
piece of plate (presented by the company) and the
debts of the concern."



Mathews in the Queen's Bench Prison. Charles Kemble shows no
mercy. Mathew*s bankruptcy annulled. An engagement offered by
Macready. Macready's grasping nature. His jealousy of Vestris.
Why he engaged Madame and her husband. Vestris at Drury Lane.
She is systematically kept in the background. Macready's manners.
Vestris shows fight. Her biting sarcasm. A stormy scene. Vestris
throws up her part in King Arthur and quits the theatre. Macready's
disingenuous version of the dispute. His ignorance of and contempt
for music. Vestris and Mathews engaged at the Haymarket. Owing
to Mathews's blunder financial difficulties pursue them. Mathews
again a bankrupt. Termination of the Haymarket engagement.
The Lyceum enterprise entered upon.

FOR some weeks after the eviction from Covent Garden
Charles Mathews was occupied in straightening out
his affairs for his examination in bankruptcy. Part
of this time was spent in the Queen's Bench Prison,
thanks to the oppressive law which then regarded a
debtor as a criminal. When a statement of accounts
was published it showed that his debts from December
1837 amounted to 27,499 ijs. lid., of which he
received consideration for 26,200 2s. lid., and the
remainder related to Madame Vestris.

The theatre, according to the statement, was
taken with an agreement to pay a rental of 5,000 to
7,000 a year, after deducting 60 a week for Mathews
and Madame Vestris. The theatre was rented three
seasons. For the first season 5,000 was paid for rent,
the second season 6,150, and the third 2,384, in-
dependent of 700 to be received from private boxes
and 1,400 from the conductors of the German Opera.
During the first season there was a nightly loss of 22,



the second season showed a loss of .10 a night, and this
loss in the third season amounted to .41 141. The
total loss on the three seasons was 13,286 i6s. id.
No allusion was made to the verbal agreement by
which if fulfilled by the tenants they were not to be
molested. A verbal agreement is, of course, open to
more than one interpretation. Mathews's assertion
that 15,000 had been paid was correct if the rent of
the boxes and the amount due from the German Opera
Company to whom the theatre was let be added, the
total sum being 15,634. But apparently the third
year's rent was due before these two items could be
included, and if the proprietors of the theatre were in-
clined to be lenient (which they were not) they would
have appreciated the situation. But Kemble was
anxious to dominate the theatre once more. He
ignored the fact that Madame Vestris had restored its
fortunes, which under his management had fallen very
low, and he wanted to share in his daughter's success.
His fatherly feeling can be excused, but not the
grasping spirit which accompanied it.

The sympathy shown on all sides for Vestris and
her husband was very genuine. The consideration
extended towards Mathews was evidenced by his
treatment while in the Queen's Bench Prison. As
a matter of fact he was saved from an actual experi-
ence of the sordid life within the walls. He was given
a room over the porter's lodge fitted up into " a really
elegant boudoir " by a former occupant, a wealthy,
reckless young nobleman, and here he spent a week.
Subsequently he stayed for a month in the country
until, as he writes, " the day of emancipation arrived,
and without a word of reproach or opposition the
burthen of debt was removed from my shoulders
and I walked the earth a new-born babe."

Before the crash came Vestris was making arrange-
ments for the future. Of their provincial engagements
they were sure, but what of the winter season in Lon-
don ? Covent Garden Theatre, after what had


happened, was unthinkable. There remained Drury
Lane and the Haymarket. Macready had entered
upon the management of the first-named during the
previous year and he had discovered in Madame Vestris
a formidable rival. Their feelings towards each other
were made fairly plain in the little passage of arms over
Comus and King Arthur. Vestris' s attitude was one
slightly approaching contempt. Macready regarded
Madame with the jealousy of a narrow mind. One has
not to read much of his Diary to discover that he was
mean, vain, and intolerant of opinions other than
his own. The audience which did not admire his
presentation of the tragic art was a collection of
ignorant brutes. There was but one kind of dramatic
entertainment, and that was tragedy. There was
only one tragedian in the world, and he was William
Charles Macready.

Of music Macready was wholly ignorant and he
had no taste for it. Musicians and singers were
beneath his notice. When Bishop was made Sir Henry,
he wrote bitterly of the composer's elevation, and over
Sims Reeves he tried to dominate and received a
defiance which must have astonished him considerably.
Henry Phillips, the popular baritone, he treated
slightingly ; he was rude to Clara Novello ; and Tom
Cooke, his musical conductor, did not have a very
easy time of it. When Madame Vestris announced
in her bills that seats could be reserved at a charge of
a guinea each, he recorded (February 2ist, 1842) :
" No newspaper takes notice of this ; no newspaper
notices the difference in my arrangements. Had I
done half as much, how they would have swept upon
me ! What is there more vile and worthless than a
newspaper writer perhaps nothing."

He loved flattery. Under May 2ist, 1840, his
Diary contains this item : " Acted Halbert Macdonald
with much feeling. ... I heard Vestris was in the
house and saw her applauding vehemently. Has she
discovered that a theatre cannot be conducted without


actors ? Or does all this mean anything ? " Actors
or no actors, Macready saw in Vestris the only manager
able to compete with him. In February 1840 she
was only at the commencement of her Covent Garden
campaign, but he feared her, and his prejudice pre-
vented him giving her credit for sincerity. Vestris
was no hypocrite, and she would not have applauded
Macready had she not felt like it.

Throughout Vestris' s occupation of Covent Garden,
Macready was nervously anxious about her proceedings
and eagerly swallowed every piece of theatrical gossip
which told to her detriment. " It is not a fitting
spectacle the National Drama in the hands of
Madame Vestris and Charles Mathews," is one carping
item (September I3th, 1840). On October 1st of
the same year he records : " Talk with Brydone about
state of Covent Garden, and learned that all were
wishing me to be there except Vestris." This was
not at all likely to be true and is emphatically contra-
dicted by Macready himself in the following entry
four days later : " Covent Garden actors had signed
a declaration of allegiance and support to Madame

His vanity peeps out in the entry of October 6th,
in which he records his visit to Covent Garden to
see Knowles's play and thus comments : " I paid for
entrance, a slight reproach, I think, to the manners,
taste, and feeling of the present management. . . .
I was, or seemed to be, quite unknown in the theatre
where not a year ago I was the observed of all observers.
Such is the world ! "

After the production and success of London Assurance
there was much talk concerning its authorship and
also concerning other works of Lee Moreton (Dion
Boucicault's pseudonym), and Macready on February
6th, 1841, writes in reference to a rumour brought
to him by Miss Helen Faucit " that this Mr. Lee More-
ton, on the rejection of the play called Woman by
Vestris, sent it to me ; that I said I would act the


play if he would take the good speeches out of the
woman's part and put them into mine, ... I tried
vainly to recollect in years back any circumstances
respecting such a play ... I could think of

Considering that Macready was unfavourably dis-
posed towards Mr. and Mrs. Mathews and was not
one to help anyone out of pure sympathy, it is at
first sight puzzling to understand his reasons for making
overtures to them when their days at Covent Garden
were numbered. It may be regarded as a certainty
that negotiations were not started by the Mathewses.
Charles Mathews in his Autobiography is silent on
the matter. He has not a word to say concerning
either Macready or his and Vestris's engagement at
Drury Lane. Doubtless he had good reason for
reticence. Their association with Macready was
an exceedingly unpleasant one. Macready exhibited
himself in an odious light, and, writing years after,
Mathews probably saw the futility of raking up con-
troversial matters which must have left a bitterness
in his mind quite foreign to his nature.

The motive which prompted Macready's offer to
Vestris and her husband was soon suspected, and
these suspicions found utterance in the press and
were confirmed by Macready himself. In the Diary
he shows plainly enough that his object was entirely
selfish and for his own protection. Under April 9th,
1842, appears the following : " I agreed to give Mr.
and Mrs. C. Mathews the terms for which they stood
out, viz. 60 per week. It is a very great salary, but
it is paid in consideration of enfeebling a position as
well as adding to my own strength. . . . Called at
Beasley's and found there Mr. Charles Mathews and
Madame Vestris. I met them very frankly and good-
humouredly, heard much that was irrelevant and
some things that amused me ; at last concluded an
engagement with them for two years at a salary of
60 per week for Drury Lane. Parted with them,


they started off in their carriage, I in my shabby old
hackney cab."

Macready's frankness, interpreted by the light of
what followed, may be doubted ; hardly his envy,
of which the concluding words of the entry are evi-
dence. Neither can much dependence be placed on
his good-humour. There was certainly not a trace
of good-humour in what he wrote on May 1st of
the same year : " Read Mr. Charles Mathews's
speech on the closing of Covent Garden. It was
worthy of Mr. C. M. and ' the management of Madame
Vestris.' Players, poor players ! " If this record
expresses anything at all, it is grim satisfaction at the
misfortunes and downfall of his rivals.

Macready opened the winter season of 1842-3 with
As Tou Like It. Vestris and Mathews made their
first appearance in The Follies of a Night. Vestris' s
performance throughout was delightful and that of
her husband equally so, wrote the Age (now the Age
and Argus and minus Molloy Westmacott, really
quite a model of decorum), but Mathews's acting as
Roderigo in Othello, which followed, was declared to
be " execrable." Possibly, but no discredit is to be
attached to the actor. The blame belonged to
Macready, who, either through ill-judgment or, what
was more likely, malevolence, thrust Mathews into a
part for which he was wholly unsuited.

As the season advanced Macready soured. His
overweening vanity was ruffled by unfavourable criti-
cisms in many newspapers which the fulsome flattery
of the Morning Chronicle failed to soothe. He had
an old grievance against the critics. During his first
season at Drury Lane the Weekly Dispatch unmerci-
fully attacked him and the outraged tragedian sued
the offending paper. He was further infuriated when
an unsympathetic jury considered that .5 was a
sufficient solatium for his wounded feelings. This dis-
appointing verdict biased his mind towards the press
and probably increased his irascibility and arrogance


where his company was concerned. He was soon at
loggerheads with Vestris, to whom he gave little
chance for distinction. It was gall and wormwood
to see her rapturously applauded, and he, the tragedian,
receive but a moderate show of hands.

An outburst in the Age and Argus brought matters
to a crisis. It ran : " Drury Lane will shortly be in
a state of revolt if Mr. Macready does not relax from
his habitual routine of tyranny. . . . When Mr. Mac-
ready engaged Madame Vestris, he ought to have had
no other object in view than turning her great talents
and popularity to account ; but in the palpable spirit
of wishing to crush her fame and wound her feelings
she has become a comparative cypher. . . . Mr.
Charles Mathews has been thrust into Fag, and the
name of his wife, that for some years has blazoned
conspicuously in the affiches of all theatres, can only
now be discovered in them by virtue of a magnifying
glass." The troublous state of things was further
accentuated by a charge of meanness brought against
the manager, he having arbitrarily closed the theatre
on more than one occasion to benefit his pocket by
docking the salaries of his company.

Meanwhile the indignation of Vestris was simmering
and it rose to boiling-point. She threw up her en-
gagement in the second week of November. The
story is given thus in a journal of the day :

" In the morning preceding the performance of
the Duenna, Madame Vestris had an interview with
Mr. Macready, and, drawing his attention to a
playbill she held in her hand, pointed out to him the
glaring manner by which through the extinctic
support he gave to the plays he himself performed in,
he rendered the effect of all others negative, and how
seriously this proceeding was contrary to the spirit
of her engagement ; and after pointing out a series
of indignities heaped upon her, proceeded to state
that she had often heard of the devil being painted
blacker than he was, but she never knew his exact


colour until she met with Mr. Macready ! That he
had altogether violated their contract and that no
consideration on earth should induce her again to
act under his management. The immediate cause
of this outbreak which a day or two must under any
circumstances have brought to bear was the non-
payment of the salaries for the evenings he so wantonly
and unnecessarily closed the theatre together with
the prospect, since realised, of two similar stoppages
occurring in the week now expired.

" This, as we have observed, was the immediate
cause ; the latent one was the series of indignities
which Mr. Macready has heaped upon this lady from
the moment she entered the theatre. ... A few
months ago this lady was in the management of the
rival theatre and the most powerful antagonist the
lessee of Drury Lane had to contend against ; but
circumstances . . . led to her dethronement, and to
prevent her remounting that throne, Mr. Macready
with great prudence offered herself and her husband a
good salary for the season. . . . With a full knowledge
of the power she had wielded and the calamities she
had undergone, Mr. Macready should have done all
he could to prevent her feeling her situation. . . .

" In addition . . . there are professional reasons
why it was his policy to do all this, for Madame Vestris
is one of the most celebrated performers ever known
to the London stage and stands at this moment before
her audience as one of the most accomplished ladies
and popular actresses who have ever been admitted
to their favour. . . . But he acted altogether on an
opposite principle, studied to degrade her to the lowest
pitch, and but for her own proper spirit he would
have done so."

Macready was, as the Rugby boy described Dr.
Temple, "a beast," but he was not, as the boy admitted,
" a just beast." He could not be honest even to
himself. His version of the passage of arms as set
down in the Diary runs : " About to begin rehearsal


. . . when Mr. C. Mathews wished to speak to me.
Madame Vestris followed him into my room and began
a scene which lasted two or three hours on the lady's
part much Billingsgate and false assertion, on his much
weakness and equivocation. I would not relinquish
their engagement, but offered to defer the pecuniary
point. She threw down her part in King Arthur and
left the room, stating she would not act after next
week if the full salary were not paid." Macready here
was both disingenuous and evasive. He avoided the
main issue that of continually slighting the two most
accomplished members of his company. The offer
to " defer the pecuniary point " was a shuffle to escape
liability, and Vestris's flat refusal to have no more
to do with a man who was as shifty as he was vain and
arrogant was only what was to be expected from the
high-spirited woman.

The part in King Arthur which Vestris contemp-
tuously rejected was an insignificant one, that of
Venus, little short, as one critic described it, of " a
pantomime character." The principal woman in
the opera, Philodel, was given to Macready's pet
protegee, Miss P. Horton. Priscilla Horton was a
clever girl, but in those days an immature singer.
Previous to committing the egregious blunder of
casting her as Acis in Handel's serenata, we find Mac-
ready writing : " Must speak to Miss P. Horton about
taking lessons in singing " a sufficient proof of his
ignorance and indifference where music was con-
cerned. The assignment of the parts in King Arthur
was a gross insult to Madame Vestris, whether inten-
tional or not.

Macready, blinded by his inflated opinion of himself,
threw away a golden opportunity. The audience
wanted to see Vestris, but her few appearances were
confined to Lady Teazle and Lydia Languish, neither
of which was suited to her, and Don Carlos in The
Duenna. Here she was seen to much more advantage.

The renewal of Dryden's opera deserves especial


notice, as in it sang one who afterwards established
himself as an idol of the British public Sims Reeves.
But as to Vestris, it is clear that she was purposely
kept in the background, and she must have felt an
intense relief when she defied and escaped from the
autocratic rule of a self-appointed oracle.

Two more references to Vestris occur in the Diary
and with these Macready may be dismissed. " Had
some little conversation with Maddox," he records
(with almost a chuckle one can imagine), while Vestris
was touring, " who told me that Vestris's and Mathews's
engagement at Dublin was a failure owing to thepotatoe
disease a black look-out! " The last entry in 1840
describes a lucky escape from an embarrassing situation.
" Left home for Manchester," it runs. " At the sta-
tion asked for a coupe and was told it was engaged,
and whilst I was arranging my seat in a carriage a
person of the station came and told me that there was
one seat in the coupe unoccupied, but that ' Mr.
Mathews and Madame Vestris had the others, and
perhaps I might not like it.' I laughed and said,
' Certainly not/ and that I was much obliged."

Vestris and Mathews were not long without an
engagement, and the end of November 1 842 saw them
installed at the Haymarket, then under the manage-
ment of Benjamin Webster. The productions in
which Vestris and her husband were concerned during
the winter do not call for special mention. They were
pieces thoroughly familiar and acceptable to the

Provincial engagements followed, and then came
financial disaster, the shadow of which had been
projected for some time and in the summer of 1843
completely darkened the prospects of the embarrassed
couple, in spite of strenuous efforts on the part of
both to emerge from it. Their fresh misfortunes
may be said to be due to Mathews's irresponsible habit
which led him to take a self-imposed burden for which
there was no necessity. Excess of zeal is mischievous


enough, but it may be questioned whether excess of
conscientiousness be not worse. The new disaster
came about in this way. Directly his bankruptcy
arising out of the Covent Garden failure was annulled
Mathews expressed his intention of discharging his
obligations, outside the protection given by law.
Nothing could be more admirable, and had he been
contented with endeavouring to carry out this inten-
tion by force of will all would have been well. But
instead he entered into fresh legal arrangements
concerning his old debts, gave bills that were nego-
tiable, and within a twelvemonth he was saddled
with a burden which from some .4,000 had become
" ten or twelve by the magic of law and accumulated


The position in which Charles Mathews found
himself was doubtless harassing enough to him per-
sonally, but it must have been doubly so to Madame
Vestris. Her indomitable and energetic spirit could
not but have chafed under this fresh misfortune.
She had gone through the wretched experience of
sustaining a burden of debt too often not to dread it.
The galling part of the present situation was that it
was an insurmountable barrier to further enterprise.
To serve where she had ruled was too humiliating
to contemplate. She and Mathews fell back upon
provincial engagements, and they worked their hardest
to free themselves from financial liabilities, but to
no purpose.

Whether the difficulties into which Charles Mathew?
had voluntarily plunged were incurred after consul-
tation with Madame and how far she advised him
for or against it is impossible to say. It is hardly
likely that she had no voice in the matter. His next
step, he himself says, was taken on the advice that
he could better bring his creditors to reason by with-
drawing himself out of their jurisdiction, and " in a
fit of despair " he relinquished his engagement at
the Haymarket Theatre and fled to France. This

(From the collection of the late A. M. Broadley.)


proved a blunder. The law pursued him and with
greater severity, and rinding, as he says, " that all
legal documents could be passed to foreign holders
and be enforced more rigidly on that side of the water
than on this," he addressed a letter to his creditors,
putting forward his position, and once more sought
the protection of the Bankruptcy Court.

It is not necessary to go into the details of this
unhappy state of affairs. Those who wish to do so
will find them fully dealt with in the Life of Charles J.
Mathews. The upshot was that Mathews entered

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 22 of 24)