Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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into an arrangement under which he agreed to set
aside .1,300 a year in discharge of his debts, and once
more he and Vestris made a fresh start and returned
to the Haymarket.

It was not until the beginning of 1845 that matters
settled down to anything like tranquillity. In Febru-
ary The Merry Wives of Windsor was produced at
the Haymarket. Vestris was Mrs. Page a character
which she had played now and again for something
like twenty years and Mrs. Nisbett was Mrs. Ford.
Farren essayed Falstaff ; Charles Mathews, Slender ;
and Mrs. Glover, Dame Quickly. The performance,
according to contemporary criticism, was a very
delightful one. In February came one of Charles
Mathews's inimitable impersonations in Used up. He
played the part with perennial spontaneity almost to
the end of his days.

At a performance some time in April a few un-
mannerly and unfeeling people attempted to create
a demonstration hostile to Vestris " low fellows,'*
we are told, who considered themselves aggrieved
by the arrangement under the bankruptcy. The
attempt failed, and the majority of the audience
burst into hearty applause.

Vestris bravely surmounted her troubles and on
the stage she was as brilliant as ever. One of her
triumphs was Flipante in Farquhar's Confederacy,
" admirable in conception," said the Age and Arguj,



" perfect in execution the best thing she has done
for years."

In October was produced Boucicault's Old Heads
and Toung Hearts, which was preceded by an alterca-
tion between Vestris and the dramatist, who, with his
Irish temperament, was always ready to be combative.
The cause of difference was Vestris' s complaint that
her part required strengthening. Boucicault refused
to make any alteration and the critics supported him.
" Madame looks remarkably well and her acting is
worthy her appearance," wrote one. " Why on
earth should we want the part made stronger ? Bou-
cicault was quite right in refusing to comply she
has exactly what she should have or makes us
think so."

At the termination of these Haymarket engagements
they played for some weeks at the Princess's, and then,
the Lyceum being vacant, the enterprising couple
determined to make another bid for the laurels of



The Lyceum campaign. Vestris's enormous responsibilities. The
house splendidly redecorated. Abolition of the " half-price " system.
Vestris's dramatic reforms. A magnificent reception. Production
of Box and Cox, with Buckstone and Harley. Walter Watts and
the beautiful Mrs. Mowatt. A tragic romance. Blanche's gorgeous
extravaganzas. The scenic artist super-eminent. The evolution of
the modern pantomime transformation scene. A string of successful
pieces. The search for novelties. Melodrama in eight acts ! Frequent
illnesses of Madame Vestris. The management shows signs of decay.
The final flicker of the candle. Madame Vestris's last appearance.
Charles Mathews's bankruptcy and arrest. Vestris's death. The
pathetic end of a great career and a great artist.

AFTER going through the ordeal of three bankruptcies
one attached to Vestris and two to Charles Mathews
to resume the responsibility of management was
a bold venture. The difficulties facing the enter-
prising couple were enormous. They had no capital ;
they had only just emerged from a heavy burden of
debt and a long spell of intense anxiety, yet this
bitter experience did not deter them. Both Madame
and Charles believed in themselves, and they had good
reason for that belief.

What was to be their programme ? They had no
place in the legitimate drama. Vestris's essays in
that direction were open to criticism, and in Shake-
speare she dared not go beyond The Merry Wives of
Windsor, As Ton Like It, and A Midsummer-Nights
Dream. Charles Mathews was impossible in any
Shakespearean part. The charm of their acting was
in their individuality, and they could only display
this charm in pieces written to suit them, and mounted



with the good taste and completeness with which they
were identified. It was too much to expect them
to produce the spectacular dramas which had yielded
triumphs at the Olympic and Covent Garden. Since
the collapse of the Covent Garden management, due
not to any shortcomings of their own, but to circum-
stances outside their control, they had fretted the
days away. They pined to plunge once more into
gay comediettas and fairy extravaganzas set in gorgeous
surroundings, untrammelled by hard-and-fast stage
traditions. The end of it was, the two sanguine spirits
took their courage in both hands, secured the Lyceum,
and hoped for the best.

Considering what they had to encounter, the marvel
is that they should have maintained their position
at the Lyceum for so long. Mathews writes : " For
seven years we worked day and night, and with un-
varying success ; but the want of capital to fall back
upon was for ever the drawback upon our efforts.
Every piece had to be got up upon credit, and the
outlay had always to be repaid before a profit could
be realised ; and all the large receipts accruing from
the brilliant houses from Christmas to Easter were
more than swallowed up by the utter blank that
followed from Easter to Michaelmas."

But they had no thought of fresh misfortunes
when on October i8th, 1847, they opened the theatre
with The Light Dragoons, by Dance, in which Mathews,
Harley, Charles Selby, and Mrs. Stirling, the latter
charming in her youthful exuberance, appeared ; and
with Blanche's The Pride of the Market, wherein
Vestris displayed all her old vivacity and elegance.
She was supported by Leigh Murray and Buckstone.
Ever on the side of the public's comfort and con-
venience, Madame Vestris instituted the " no fees "
system an example which no other contemporary
manager dared to follow ; and she abolished " half
prices," always a source of annoyance to those who
had paid for an entire evening's entertainment. The


" half prices " were mostly shop assistants who came
in more merry than wise and made themselves ob-
jectionable in various ways.

Nothing could be more encouraging than the aus-
pices under which the season commenced. The
public were delighted to see Vestris back in her role
as Queen of the Stage. She did not disappoint their
expectations indeed she exceeded them. The Times
wrote :

" For beauty of decoration this house will not lose
by comparison with any in London. It is no longer
the same edifice it was three weeks ago. The ugly
balcony, which always made it look empty, however
crowded it might be, has been pulled down, and the
front of the dress circle is bowed out like that of Covent
Garden, and the central chandelier is also removed
and a beautifully painted ceiling is laid open to the
view. . . . The problem of combining a massive
splendour with a general appearance of lightness has
been most happily solved. . . . The new drop-scene
representing a crimson curtain falling over a light
background is by Mr. Beverley, who is engaged as scene
painter to the establishment and who promises to be
one of the finest artists in his line. . . . The house
will no doubt be conducted on the plan which made
the Olympic under Ma-dame Vestris one of the most
celebrated theatres in London. If so, it would supply
a gap which has been felt for the last eight years."

Other papers were equally enthusiastic over the
novel attractions and the general brightness. The
Era took a broader view. Its words are pertinent
to the tribute paid more than once in these pages to
the influence exercised by Vestris in the advancement
of the stage :

" Madame Vestris," it declared, " is the champion
'par excellence of the Living Drama. It was Madame
Vestris who years ago set the bold example of dis-
carding the hackneyed and worn-out plays which
cant still calls * standard,' of clearing the mirror of


nature from ' legitimate ' cobwebs and dust, and of
making it represent the manners, habits, and follies
of the age we live in. Shelving the conventional in
comedy and in sentiment, banishing the patriotic,
the mawkish pathos, the dreary soliloquy, the skin-deep
virtue, . . . Madame Vestris suddenly brought out
a sparkling series of pictures of good society, painted
up as dramatic necessity required, but only heightened
for the sake of * art,' not distorted for the sake of
effect. . . .

" To Madame Vestris appertains the honour of
having smashed the cant preached by ignorant mana-
gers who really knew no better ; lazy actors, who having
by long study mastered a part prefer repeating it
usque ad, nauseam to attempting a new one ; bigoted
critics, who having been told in childhood that Shake-
speare was * for all time ' believe that all time is to
be spent on seeing his noble plays parodied or made
spectacles ; and the mass of folk of one idea, who because
they have but that one claim to dictate what ideas
shall be presented to other people. Honour to the
good revolutionist citoyenne Vestris ! "

The last words were apt enough. Revolutions
were smouldering in Europe and broke into flame in

Used as Vestris was to enthusiastic and warm-
hearted receptions, she never had one so genuinely
emotional as that which greeted her when she stepped
upon the stage. The packed house, to use Edmund
Kean's words, " rose " at her. She was overwhelmed,
and it was some minutes before The Pride of the Market
could begin. Charles Mathews was received with
equal heartiness if not with demonstrations so pro-
nounced. Night after night the house was crowded,
and the hall-mark of success was set when the names
of a whole string of aristocratic patrons who had
attended the performance appeared in the newspapers
from time to time. London in the winter of 1847
was plagued by a severe visitation of influenza, but


despite this it was noted that there was no falling-off
in the Lyceum audiences, while all the other theatres
were half empty. Maybe the brightness of the Lyceum
and the magnetic influence of Vestris were regarded
as wholesome tonics.

No dramatic novelty deserving special notice was
produced during the first three months of the season
save one the perennial Box and Cox. It was pro-
duced on November ist, 1847, Buckstone playing Box,
and Harley, Cox. It was hailed with shouts of laugh-
ter, the peculiar humour of Buckstone being exactly
suitable to the farcical character he impersonated.

The author of Box and Cox was Maddison Morton,
who unintentionally was connected with as tragic
and as curious a story as is to be found in the history
of the English stage. Morton made a good deal of
money out of Box and Cox and invested some of it
in the purchase of two 50 shares in the Globe Insur-
ance Company. Some time after, being pressed for
money, he determined to sell these shares, and chancing
to meet in the street Walter Watts, a dandified, dressy
little man with theatrical tastes, who, Morton knew,
was a clerk in the Globe, he suggested that Watts
should purchase the shares, which Watts did. What-
ever may have been in Watts' s mind at the time, it
is very clear that Morton had not the slightest idea
of the extraordinary legal issue to which the sale of
these two shares led.

Watts at that time was lessee of the Marylebone
Theatre, and fired by the example of Madame Vestris,
or by some personal ambition, was transforming this
dingy and inconvenient theatre into a luxurious home
of the drama. It was a rash undertaking, for Maryle-
bone as a locality for theatrical enterprises was, as
it is to-day, out of the beaten track. But Watts
was smitten by the charms of the " beautiful Mrs.
Mowatt," an American actress who came here with
a reputation for talent which she hardly sustained.
Watts' s ambitious schemes knew no bounds. He


went one better than Vestris in providing sumptuous
saloons for the refreshment of the audience and equally-
sumptuous dressing-rooms for the company, numbering
some forty actors and actresses, all leading members
of the profession.

Neither the campaign nor the " beautiful Mrs.
Mowatt " was a success. Watts relinquished the
Marylebone and took the Olympic, in which he spent
a small fortune. Suddenly the sword of Damocles
which had been hanging over the dressy and genial
little man fell. He was arrested on a charge of having
robbed the Insurance Company with which he was
connected of 80,000 ! How he contrived to make
use of his position to do this does not here matter.
What is of consequence is the two shares he bought
of Maddison Morton. He contended that as he was
a shareholder he was also a partner, and therefore he
could not be proceeded against, and this contention
was upheld. But the intricacies of the law are mani-
fold. Watts had misappropriated cheques, and he
was indicted on a charge of stealing a piece of paper
(i.e. a cheque). This cheque was a blank one, which he
had filled up and cashed, and his conviction was based
on the theft of the paper. The trumpery nature of
the legal offence made no difference in the sentence
passed, which was ten years' penal servitude.

Tragedy lay in the sequel. That night he hanged
himself in his cell in Newgate, and it was said that
when his clothing was removed round his neck was
found a miniature portrait that of the beautiful
Mrs. Mowatt.

Christmas entertainments were always eagerly looked
forward to by the theatrical public. Managers vied
with each other in the production of pantomimes,
but not the conglomerate shows such as we have to-day
grown accustomed to and of which, maybe, are tired.
They were comparatively simple affairs a comic plot,
the characters in which afterwards figured as clown,
pantaloon, harlequin, etc., in the harlequin. Gradually,


however, the gorgeous Christmas pieces introduced
by Vestris with Planche's help were influencing
the old-fashioned pantomimes, and though the
transformation scene had not in the late forties come
into its own, Planche seemed to have some foreboding
that the " things of beauty " of which he was the
author would at no distant date run riot and refuse
to be curbed by good taste.

At first Planche was able to keep the scenic artists
within bounds. The Golden Branch (Christmas 1847),
Theseus and Ariadne (Easter 1848), The King of the
Peacocks (Christmas 1848), and The Seven Champions
(Easter 1849) were all excellent specimens of a delicate
fancy, humour combined with bright and artistic
surroundings and novel effects. The scenery, cos-
tumes, and mounting were subordinate to the human
interest, the chief burden of which rested upon Vestris,
from whom the rest of the characters seemed to draw

Planche found an able coadjutor in Beverley,
the scene-painter, then at the outset of his career.
Beverley revelled in the scope which Planche's fairy
extravaganzas gave him. He saw possibilities in his
imaginative faculties and in his brush which he longed
to fulfil, as Planche was destined to discover.

On Boxing Day 1849 Planche produced The Island
of Jewels. He writes of this : " The novel yet ex-
ceedingly simple falling of the leaves of a palm tree,
which discovered six fairies supporting a coronet of
jewels, produced such an effect as I scarcely remember
having witnessed on any similar occasion up to that
period. But alas ! ' this effect defective came by
cause.' Year after year Mr. Beverley's powers were
tasked to out-do his former out-doings. The last
scene became the first in the estimation of the manage-
ment. The most complicated machinery, the most
costly materials, were annually put into requisition,
until their bacon was so buttered that it was impos-
sible to save it. As to me, I was positively painted


out. Nothing was considered brilliant but the last
scene. Dutch metal was in the ascendant. It was
no longer even painting, it was upholstery. Mrs.
Charles Mathews herself informed me that she had
paid between 60 and .70 for gold tissue for dresses
of the supernumeraries alone, who were discovered
in attitudes in the last scene of Once upon a Time there
were Two Kings."

During the seven years of Vestris's management
of the Lyceum many comedies and farces were pro-
duced which became established favourites until
fashion and a new school of acting rendered them
obsolete. A Wonderful Woman, A Game of Speculation,
Cool as a Cucumber, A Phenomenon in a Smock Frock,
A Day of Reckoning, Done on Both Sides, Not a Bad
Judge, Delicate Ground, Poor Pillicoddy, Little Toddle-
kins, among others possibly survive in the memories
of very old playgoers, but to the present generation
they represent nothing.

Vestris was always in quest of novelty, and her efforts
to be ever up to date must have entailed a great
strain on her nervous system. Maybe she could see
that fairy extravaganzas, though enormously success-
ful, must eventually pall. Each one was pronounced
by the critics to be better than its predecessor, but
there was bound to come a time when the force of
invention could no further go.

Moreover, there was the heavy outlay to be con-
sidered, and but very few people knew this she
and her husband were clogged by debts. Charles
Mathews had learned little by experience. His opti-
mism led him to believe what he wished to believe.
At the outset of the Lyceum enterprise a friend who
had the reputation of being very wealthy promised to
finance him. Mathews, after he had embarked in the
new venture, discovered that the reputed millionaire
was a man of straw, and he had to go on single-handed
as best he could. For years he and Vestris bravely
faced the struggle, but gradually their resources


dwindled. Circumstances were too strong for them,
and worst of all was the precarious health of Vestris.
She may not at first have suspected it but what proved
to be a mortal disease was gradually undermining her
constitution. Yet outwardly she was as gay and as
energetic as ever. The reputation of the Lyceum
was her first thought, and well or ill she must keep faith
with the public.

However, the time came when the production of
expensive novelties of the kind with which she was
identified was beyond her reach. Another kind of
entertainment was sought for, and, always in advance
of her time, for the Easter attraction of 1852 she put
on a piece of stupendous length, in some of the scenes
in which she anticipated the realistic melodramatic
efforts associated with Drury Lane and Sir Augustus
Harris. This piece (from the French) was entitled
A Chain of Events ', and was in eight acts ! Under
the title of Les Dames de la Halle it had made a great
hit in Paris, and its adaptator to an English dress was
George Henry Lewes. The plot was exceedingly
complicated and some of the scenes highly sensational,
one indeed, that of a ship sinking with all hands, John
Coleman was of opinion has never since been equalled.
The house of fairyland and of laughter hardly seemed
to fit in with lurid melodrama, but it ran for fifty
nights, probably because no adequate substitute was
in readiness.

The winter season of 1852 began to show the poverty
of the land, and old successes were revived one after
the other until Christmas, when Planche came to
the rescue with a characteristic extravaganza, The
Good Woman in the Wood, Vestris enacting the Good
Woman. The extravaganza ran till Easter, Vestris
acting with all her old vivacity and receiving congratu-
lations all round upon her improved health. The
melodramatic experiment of the year before was
repeated in what was termed A dramatic tale in 9
chapters, entitled A Strange History. It was a cumbrous,


complicated affair and was deservedly damned with
faint praise. Its life was but a short one, and in
desperation The Good Woman in the Wood was put on
again together with old pieces such as Used up, of
which Charles Mathews bore the burden. No an-
nouncement concerning the few appearances of Vestris
was made, but it was pretty obvious that her absence
was owing to illness. Charles Mathews did his best
to " carry on," but he was not Madame, and it is not
surprising to read that the house was but " thinly

The summer passed on, and when the winter season
of 1853 commenced on October 3ist, all that the
management could do in the way of novelty was a
farce with the ill-omened and clumsy title of The
Commencement of a Bad Farce which it is hoped will turn
out Wright at Last. The piece introduced Wright
the comedian, so long associated with Paul Bedford
at the Adelphi, and no introduction could have been
more unfortunate. The farce throughout was heartily
hissed, and subsequently the first half of the title
and of the piece was cut out and Wright at Last alone
remained. But the mutilated version was not much
of an improvement and was soon withdrawn. Old
pieces were revived, and an effort was made to produce
at Christmas a worthy successor to former triumphs.
Once upon a Time there were Two Kings was the

This proved to be Planche's last fairy extravaganza
and was pronounced to be in no way inferior to its
predecessors, but it was shorn of its brightness by
the frequent non-appearance of the one attractive
personality who was the life and soul of every piece
in which she took a part. An indifference, a sort of
disposition to let things take care of themselves, a
weakening of intuitive power, began to creep over
the management. The guiding hand, the alert, ver-
satile brain were wanting.

It is sad to find, apropos of the 1854 Easter " no-


velty," Give a Dog an III Name, which was announced
but was not produced without any apology being
forthcoming, the Era writing : " The house was very
poorly attended. Everything in front looked half
dead and languid boxes, box-keepers, decorations,
audience, house and curtains alike all seemed dingy,
faded, and unreal. We heard no explanation offered
for the non-production of the new piece and no dis-
satisfaction expressed at its non-appearance. Indeed,
no one seemed to know that one had been promised
or to care about it or to have energy or spirit enough
to express their feelings on the subject."

On the following evening the piece was put on,
but it failed to attract. It was too evident that
decay had set in. Mathews was harassed by clamorous
creditors. Poor Vestris on a sick-bed could do nothing.
The end was approaching and salvation was im-

Indomitable to the last, Madame roused herself
to assist at her husband's benefit on July 26th, 1854.
Remembering the unhappy state of affairs, the title
of the play, Sunshine through the Clouds, savoured of
irony. There was to be no more sunshine for the gifted
woman who for over thirty years had been at once
the idol and the pet of the public. Those who saw
her on this occasion as sprightly and as great a mistress
of her art as ever could not believe that they were
gazing upon Vestris who seemed to possess the secret
of eternal youth for the last time, but it was so.
The occasion does not appear to have been marked
by any particular demonstration, but this is easily
accounted for. That Vestris would never again
appear on the boards she had graced for so long was a
probability which entered into no one's head.

The summer season of 1854 closed, the winter season
crept on apace. Charles Mathews had to face the
situation alone. The enforced retirement of Vestris
meant a loss which could not be made good. Nobody
could enter the Lyceum without thinking of the


bright, airy spirit whose smile would never again
delight them, whose sweet, luscious voice had thrilled
them for the last time. Charles battled with the
situation as best he could, but his helpmate, his support,
was gone. The climax came at the end of 1854. The
winter it was the first year of the Crimean War
was intensely severe. A heavy and prolonged fall
of snow blocked the streets. For days traffic was
exceedingly difficult. The theatres were inaccessible.
The treasury of the Lyceum was empty, and one
impatient creditor selected the moment to descend
upon the manager with all the hardness of the

Once more Mathews found himself a bankrupt,
but he was not without friends, and it was intimated
that should he pass honourably through the bankruptcy
ordeal a fund would be awaiting to start him afresh.

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 23 of 24)