Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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is no record whether he used a baton. He probably
did not, as that method of conducting had not come
into general use. Spohr at the Philharmonic Concerts
in 1820 was the first to do so. Up to that date and
for some time afterwards the pianist had the score
before him not exactly to conduct from it, but to
read after and play in with the orchestra when he
thought it necessary. The real conductor was the
first violin. When Spohr drew a baton from his pocket
and gave the signal to begin, the worthy directors of
the Philharmonic Society were quite perturbed at
the innovation and were beginning to protest; but
Spohr begged them to let him have at least one trial.
They yielded, and he so convinced them of the ad-
vantage of the baton that they allowed him to have
his own way. Spohr's baton was shown at the Musical
Exhibition of 1891. It was a clumsy stick not quite
a foot long wrapped round with parchment.

It could hardly be said that Madame Colbran was
a success, either in Zelmira or in any other opera. She
had an imposing presence and possessed a powerful
voice, and she had great dramatic talent ; but she was
past her prime and at times sang terribly out of tune.
Zelmira proved to be an uninteresting work, and it
was not extraordinary that Madame Vestris in the
minor part allotted her had no chance of distinction,
the Post remarking that " Madame seemed quite an
interloper in the business of the drama, but she sang
with much spirit."

Rossini was the fashion. With the exception of
Zingarelli's Romeo e Giulietta and Mozart's Don
Giovanni (on the last night of the season) no operas



SQUABBLES AT THE KING'S THEATRE 93

save those of the popular composer were performed.
Such was the excitement that we have the Post
writing : " Rossini's genius acts with the force of
an irresistible magnet at this magnificent theatre.
It has effected a revolution in the habits of the fashion-
able world, and in spite of the rules of Bon 'Ton which
forebad individuals claiming any connection with
high life to appear at the opera before the second
act was nearly over, it collects them in crowds at
an early hour even before the opening of the doors.
On Saturday evening this was particularly apparent,
for the pit was suddenly filled and all its avenues
overflowed." To modify the rigid etiquette of the
" fashionables " was a triumph indeed.

Vestris had her chance when The Barber of Seville
was put on. The beautiful Ronzi di Begnis was
announced as Rosina, but the lady had one of those
unaccountable indispositions to which all prima donnas
are liable and Madame took her place. The part,
as most operatic goers know, is as delightful as it is
difficult. It demands the most perfect vocalisation,
and every Rosina was expected to introduce some
tour deforce in the singing-lesson scene. It is therefore
not surprising to read that " Madame Vestris was the
Rosina and as the arrangements of the theatre forced
her into the part we shall only compare her with
herself. Everyone knows that the music requires
greater power of voice and execution than she has
ever aspired to, but we must do her the justice to
say that if the attempt was not equal to the occasion
it displayed better singing than we have ever heard
or expected from her lips."

Zerlina was another character which did not show
her to advantage. Ebers says she took her benefit
in 1824 in Don Giovanni, but there is no record of
this in any of the contemporary journals. However,
she certainly was Zerlina when the opera was produced
on the last night of the season, and her singing did
not particularly please the critics. This is not sur-



94 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

prising when it is remembered that the music for
Zerlina, as in the case of Rosina, was written for a
soprano, while Vestris's voice approached that of
a contralto. She was far more at home when as
Arsace in Rossini's Semiramide she sang with Madame
Pasta the effective duet " Giorno di orrore." The
music here was entirely within her compass.

During the operatic season she continued her
engagement at Drury Lane, and a musical piece,
Philandering, or The Rose Queen, in which she appeared
was quite a success. The meretricious attractions
of Giovanni in London no longer appealed to her, and
her wayward mind and her restless ambition craved
for some more exalted attraction. She had succeeded
in establishing up to a point a reputation as an Italian
operatic singer, but she had probably discovered from
experience that she could not go very far in this
direction. She had not had the requisite training
nor had she the voice. In Italian opera it was the
soprano first and the rest nowhere. Composers
did not write leading parts for contraltos. With
the exception of Gluck's Orfeo hardly an opera can
be named where a contralto is the leading lady. Vestris
no doubt was fully aware of this, and maybe she was
beginning to be tired of continually playing second
fiddle.

But where could she shine ? In the legitimate
drama ? Hardly. Tragedy and strong emotional
parts were beyond her reach. Even in her own line
as a comedienne she had rivals. Maria Foote, Mrs.
Waylett, Mrs. Humby, Mrs. Orger ran her very close,
but they had not her fascinating personality. Not-
withstanding this advantage she may be said to have
succeeded only when she could make use of her great
powers as a ballad singer pure and simple. In 1824
she experimented with Shakespeare, but the range
of characters open to her was limited. However,
she made a fair success as Mrs. Ford, and The Merry
Wives of Windsor was given several times at Drury



SQUABBLES AT THE KING'S THEATRE 95

Lane in 1824 and at the Haymarket in 1825. Indeed,
she selected this character for her benefit at Drury Lane.

Another Shakespearean venture in 1824 was Ariel
a somewhat mature sprite, it must be confessed,
seeing that she was seven-and-twenty and her charms
fully developed. But that she sang " Come unto
these yellow sands," " Full fathom five," and " Where
the bee sucks " delightfully one can well imagine.
As for her Luciana in 'The Comedy of Errors, it is hard
to form an opinion. The notices in the newspapers
do not amount to criticisms. They were purely
perfunctory. As, however, the Adriana, the companion
part Adriana and Luciana run in couples throughout
the play was Miss Stephens, it is pretty certain that
songs for both were introduced. The idea of Kitty
Stephens, the peerless English songster, and Eliza,
unequalled in her own particular line, appearing on
the stage without singing is inconceivable ! That
Shakespeare did not consider songs for either lady
necessary was not of the slightest consequence. Man-
agers in those days cared nothing for Shakespeare's
plays save as things to be cut about to suit particular
players or particular exigencies.

Macready was acting at Drury Lane in June of
this year, and it is curious to find that Giovanni in
London followed his tragedy on his benefit night.
It would be interesting to know what the solemn
tragedian thought of the naughtinesses of the extra-
vaganza. In the autumn Vestris essayed Nell in
The Devil to Pay, which the one and only Dora
Jordan had made her own. What Madame Vestris
made of it we are not told. Her partner in the little
play was William Farren. Rob Roy, with Vestris as
Diana Vernon, among other plays all of which are
now forgotten, was given towards the end of the Drury
Lane season.

During the Haymarket summer season Madame was
fairly active. The Beggar's Opera was put on several
times, and on one occasion both Macheath (Vestris)



96 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

and Peachum came in for gentle censure for wearing
costumes of the twenties. It had been the fashion
for some years to dress the parts in haphazard style.
Incledon played Macheath in a coat with a high roll
collar and a voluminous cravat a la Brummell, and
what the dress of Madame Vestris was like the illus-
tration elsewhere shows very plainly. No doubt
in the adaptation of the Georgian dandy costume to
feminine requirements the dress was "fetching"
enough, but it was absurd so far as the opera was con-
cerned. The time came when Madame outlived this
folly, and becoming conscious of the incongruities
which had been perpetrated for generations, produced
The Beggar's Opera with costumes of the period when
it was written.

The principal novelty at the Haymarket was Alcaid,
an opera with a Spanish plot and with Vestris in a
" breeches " part moving the London Magazine to
write : " Madame Vestris enacted Don Felix in a
good loose dashing rakehelly fashion. She is the
best bad young man about town, and can stamp a
smart leg in white tights with the air of a fellow who
has an easy heart and a good tailor. We remember
once seeing Madame Vestris in female attire and
thought her a very interesting young person in that
solitary instance, but we presume that she herself
inclines to pantaloons and prefers to contemplate
the daring knee and boot to the neat and modest foot
veiled below the ankle." The music was composed
by Isaac Nathan. " It is pretty," said the London
Magazine ', " but Mr. Nathan is one of those composers
that require poetry to inspire them." This may have
been so ; at all events there was nothing in the Alcaid
which caught the popular fancy like Nathan's " Why
are you wandering here, I pray ? " Other plays at
the Haymarket were Intrigue and Sweethearts and
Wives, the season ending with The Marriage of Figaro,
Madame Vestris being the Susanna, a part which suited
her admirably.




96]



MISS MARIA FOOTE.
(From a painting by G. Clint. A.R.A.)



SQUABBLES AT THE KING'S THEATRE 97

It is pretty evident that the " fashionables " had
come to regard music as a very desirable amusement.
No dinner party was complete without the engage-
ment of whatever singer might be in vogue, and selec-
tions by Mozart and Rossini figuredin every programme.
The extent to which the fashion was carried is signi-
ficantly shown by the following announcement which
appeared in the Post during June 1824 : " A private
gentleman is at this moment actively engaged in
preparing a novelty to entertain the Fashionables
next season, intending to open his house with Sunday
evening assemblies. We understand that it is ex-
clusively for the haut ton who are to be entertained
with Sacred Music, and that to gain access to these
Parties will be even more difficult than it now is to
become entitled to the entree at Almack's." These
Sunday concerts were to be conducted by Sir George
Smart, and the services of Miss Stephens, Madame
Vestris, Braham, and Sapio were promised. The
professionals apparently were not to be trusted, the
programmes having to be " submitted to a committee
of Gentlemen." As a sample of the snobbishness of
the " Fashionables " it would be difficult to go beyond
this. No further announcement appeared, and it
may be presumed that the haut ton did not respond.

In 1825 Madame Vestris continued her operatic
work, and there was no reason why she should not,
seeing that her receipts from that source in 1824
amounted to ^600. Among the operas in 1825 was
Mozart's Coslfan tutte, and in this Madame was fairly
successful. This was on May 1 3th and six days later
Semiramidelwas announced for performance with Pasta.
When, however, the audience assembled, they found
that Otello had been substituted and a scene of con-
fusion arose, the disturbance continuing for quite an
hour, half the audience expressing contentment and the
other half clamouring for an explanation. At last
somebody connected with the management appeared
on the stage and told the malcontents that in conse-



98 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

quence of some of the performers being absent a
proper rehearsal of Semiramide was not possible. This
did not suffice. There were loud cries for the names
of the absentees. The answer came after a short
pause " Madame Vestris." The lady, he added, had
refused to attend in consequence of some misunder-
standing with Ebers. The programme was then
allowed to continue, but Vestris came in for a good
deal of free comment. It was clear that, however
popular Madame was at Drury Lane and the Hay-
market, the " fashionables " were not inclined to put
up with any caprice on her part.

It turned out, however, that the explanation given
from the stage was only half the truth. Madame
Vestris had really a good deal of right on her side.
The audience who packed the house four days later
did not of course know this, and when she presented
herself she was received with a volley of hisses. It
was the first time she had met with a hostile reception,
and she retired hurt and astonished. Presently,
however, she reappeared accompanied by Mr. Ayrton,
the musical director, who when he could get a hearing
explained that Madame Vestris was not at all to blame,
but as he did not go into details the clamourings were
renewed. At last Madame herself spoke when she
had a chance of being heard. She protested that on
the rehearsal day she was at the theatre until three
o'clock, but that Mr. Ayrton would not allow Semi-
ramide to be performed that evening as it was not in
a fit state for representation. Then her self-possession
broke down, her words became incoherent, and she
burst into tears and ran from the stage. By this
time the audience were ready to forgive, and on her
return to the stage the performance was started and
the opera, to quote the Morning Post, " went off
with infinite eclat"

Reading between the lines, the real culprit appears
to have been Ebers himself, and he cannot be accused
of an excess of chivalry in leaving Vestris to fight the



SQUABBLES AT THE KING'S THEATRE 99

battle alone. To the end of the controversy he was
reluctant to face the music, and when the full story
was made known through the newspapers it was Mr.
Ayrton who told it. It appears that a final rehearsal
of the opera was called at half -past ten, and at half -past
eleven " Madame Vestris came to the theatre and
sent for the Director into the housekeeper's room,
and there repeated what she had declared by letter
the evening before, that she would not assist at the
rehearsal then going on nor perform in La Semiramide
at night unless Mr. Ebers fulfilled certain promises
which he had made. Madame Vestris added that
she would go over to the Haymarket Theatre, would
there wait one hour, and that if Mr. Ebers wished to
see her he might send for her. It was then too late
to trust to the mere chance of Mr. Ebers's coming to
the theatre. A rehearsal on an opera night was an
unusual thing ; it had been called early in order to
afford the performers time to repose before the evening,
and any further delay was out of the question. The
Director therefore dismissed them all and immediately
determined to give Otello if possible or Cosi fan tutte,
either of which was ready. . . .

" It is true that by half -past twelve Madame Vestris
and Mr. Ebers had settled the point in question,
and that in consequence the former offered to perform
at night provided she were allowed to omit an air
or a duet, but it was then too late ; everybody had
left the theatre . . . and another rehearsal was indis-
pensably necessary. . . . Granting Madame Vestris's
claim to have been just, she was not blameable for
having occasioned the change."

It may be guessed without the need of much specu-
lation that money was at the bottom of the trouble.
Ebers was embarrassed not only by the liabilities
Benelli had left unfulfilled but by the necessity of
making certain structural alterations in the interior
of the theatre. In all probability the salaries of some
of the artists were in arrears. Madame Vestris was



100 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

not one to accept a position of this kind submissively.
Her temper was easily aroused, and when she was put
out the person who had offended her would rather
run away than fight. This seems to have been the
case with Ebers. Some fifteen years later Macready
had a passage of arms with her in which the lady came
off the victor.

Arthur GrifHnhoofe asserts he was an eyewitness
of a squabble at Covent Garden arising out of The
Beggar's Opera which, according to him, showed her
" overbearing conduct." Vestris was, of course, the
Macheath and the individual who caused her passionate
outburst was Isaacs, who was cast for Mat o' the Mint.
" Madame having performed Macheath for a number
of nights at the Haymarket," says Griffinhoofe, " did
not think proper to attend even one rehearsal at
Covent Garden. ... It appears, however, that the
prompt-book of the Haymarket had been slightly
altered, at her request, in order to bring into her part
what is professionally termed * a bit of fat,' alias l a clap-
trap/ of which alteration Mr. Isaacs was perfectly
innocent ; for such was the genuine urbanity of that
gentleman, that had Madame made the circumstances
known to him, he would, without a murmur, have
adapted his own part to that of her Macheath.

" The performance at night proceeded steadily on
till the scene when Macheath enters to the gang, to
give them instructions as to their respective duties,
etc. In the midst of the dialogue Madame suddenly
stopped, as if waiting for a cue.

" Poor Isaacs, being rather nervous, began to fidget,
while Madame, advancing towards him, exclaimed
with a frown, ' Go on, sir.'

* Madame,' replied he, l I have given you the



cue.'



'Tis false, sir ! '

" ' I beg pardon, Madame, I have not omitted a
single word.'
" She answered, in a tone so loud as to be heard by



SQUABBLES AT THE KING'S THEATRE 101

a great portion of the audience, ' I say 'tis false, sir,
and I'll not speak another line till I have my cue,'
and carelessly tapping her boots with her cane, she
swaggered up the stage, and, seating herself on the table,
sat for some time swinging her leg to and fro.

" The audience, now perceiving very clearly that
something was wrong, began to express their dis-
approbation by insolent hisses."

Once off the stage, Vestris pounced on the poor
actor and demanded an explanation of his behaviour.
He appealed to the prompter and was proved to be
in the right. This so infuriated Vestris that only
with difficulty could she be persuaded to go on, though
the stage was waiting. In the middle of her next
song she burst into tears and rushed from the stage.
Fawcett, the manager, came forward and apologised,
stating that she was indisposed, but would go through
the dialogue of the play though she could no longer
sing. Tears came to Eliza Vestris as readily as smiles,
and she resembled Peg Woffington and the " combus-
tible " Kitty Clive in many respects ; but she was more
emotional and had less control over her nerves than
either of these ladies, both of whom so sadly plagued
Garrick with their whims and caprices.



CHAPTER X

THE MARIA FOOTE SCANDAL

Turmoils in the theatrical world. Stormy reception of Kean at
Drury Lane. Rowdy audiences. Private and public boxes draw-
backs to the latter. Why theatre audiences had deteriorated. Maria
Footeandher action for breach of promise. " Pea-green " Hayne. The
notorious Colonel Berkeley. Miss Foote's love complications. The
Times weeps. Maria Foote faces an uproarious audience at Covent
Garden Theatre. Hostile reception of Madame Vestris. Theatrical
squabbles and fisticuffs. Ebers and The Barber of Seville. Complaints
that Vestris smiles and shows her teeth too much. The claque at
the King's Theatre. Dress regulations at the opera ridiculed. A
critic's facetiousness.

THE following year 1825 was one of turmoil in
the theatrical world. The playgoers of George IV's
time, who as a rule regarded ordinary stories of lapses
from the marriage vow with complacency and found
them entertaining, were indignant when the hero or
heroine of one of these piquant narratives happened
to be a stage favourite whom they had honoured with
their applause. An actor or actress might present
the gross characters of Wycherley or Farquhar with
impunity, but if in their own persons they went out-
side the conventional confines of morality and worse,
if their peccadilloes became public property casti-
gation awaited them at the hands of the virtuous
patrons of the theatre.

Edmund Kean, owing to proceedings instituted
against him by the husband of a lady in whom Kean
had taken too great an interest, met with a stormy
reception on his presenting himself on the stage of
Drury Lane Theatre in Richard III on the night of
January 24th, 1825. The yelling, the execrations, the

103



THE MARIA FOOTE SCANDAL 103

hissing, prevented a single word reaching over the
footlights. The disturbance became very pronounced.
One of the management attempted to remonstrate
with the audience. He was saluted with an orange
which struck him full in the face, and he speedily
retired. Kean, however, kept on steadily, and the
only notice he took of the malcontents was to flick
contemptuously a piece of orange-peel into the pit
with the point of Richard's sword. For nights after
he was received with similar noisy demonstrations, and
it was some weeks before the indignant champions
of morality granted him their pardon.

When it is considered of what kind of people the
average theatrical audience consisted, these protesta-
tions on behalf of public decorum, it must be con-
fessed, savoured not a little of hypocrisy. Whatever
might be the cause of affront, an audience wanted a
very small excuse to descend into rowdyism. From
an article published in a contemporary periodical we
learn that a great change had in 1825 come over
theatrical audiences.

The writer points out that owing to the fitting-up
of " handsome, showy private boxes," it had become
unfashionable for families to be seen in the public
boxes (now called the dress circle). The people of
fashion were contented to wait until they could have
the use of some friend's private box or deserted the
theatre altogether rather than appear in places unbe-
coming to their style. " Hence the front rows
of the dress circle, as it is ridiculously called, at both
houses are filled with extraordinary-looking people who
suck oranges or munch apples between the parts
and look wildly about them as if they expected to see
acquaintances." A proportion of the occupants of
these boxes appeared to be of the rowdy type, with the
result that " women in these boxes are exposed to
much that is unpleasant unless they are actually
hemmed in by their male friends ; and when per-
chance a gentleman takes his family to the dress circle,



104 MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES

if he neglect the precaution of providing a rear-guard
of able-bodied men to sit behind his wife and daughters,
the chances are that some fellow comes in at half-price,
half drunk, and thrusts his dirty boots on the bench
on which they sit, to the great damage and detriment
of their petticoats, or obtrudes his nauseous ribaldry
on their ears. . . . Then the matter is taken up by
the Squire of Dames and there is a quarrel a play-
house quarrel, the most disreputable thing in the
world ; and the women, after screaming and fainting,
form a resolution never again to put their fathers,
brothers, husbands or lovers in jeopardy in going to a
public box."

The writer deals with another cause of the deteriora-
tion of theatres. " The best and steadiest supporters
of the theatre in the olden times," he asserts, " were
the citizens and respectable tradesmen of the metro-
polis." But the habits of these worthy people were
changed. They now lived in retirement at Hackney,
Newington Butts, Kensington, and when business
was over they flew to their retreats and " go many
hundreds of yards into the country to sleep instead
of going to the play to laugh, and greatly is this change
in their habits, manners and customs felt and deplored
in the treasuries of the great theatres."

One of the consequences of these changes was that
a large proportion of the occupants of the pit and
" dress circle " comprised idle young men from the
Inns of Court, " apprentices always ready for horse-
play, and tradesmen who still lived in the metropolis."
As to the gallery, the less said about it the better.
Macready has described his experience when he
cleansed the Augean stable represented by this part of
Drury Lane Theatre. It will be easily seen from this
that in the theatres an unruly element was generally
present which did not need much encouragement to
show itself.

The excitement over Kean had scarcely died away
when the self-nominated theatrical censors were



THE MARIA FOOTE SCANDAL 105

again called upon to express their opinion on a " scan-



Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 8 of 24)