Page images
PDF
EPUB

She spent

By solicitation, and promises of punctual remuneration, she was induced to return to Drury Lane at the end of 1790. In welcoming her reappearance, the house was crowded to suffocation, and the tumultuous shouting and clapping lasted for full five minutes. * The unconfirmed state of her health, however, was obvious to general observation. The Morning Chronicle for March 22, 1791, says, that the preceding evening a most splendid house welcomed the incomparable actress in Jane Shore. The languor of indisposition," it is added, " was visible in her countenance; but this languor gave a deeper interest to the illusion, by making it more perfect, for it was suited to the distress of the penitent, and never did we see her sufferings more chastely, more calmly, and more impressively delineated.” She had strength to perform only seven nights during the season, and in no new character. On the last of these nights she charitably played for the benefit of the Theatrical Fund. The pit was laid into the boxes, and tickets were sold at a guinea each.

The state of her health disabled her, during the ensuing recess, from acting at any of the provincial theatres. the summer at Newnham Rectory, the abode of her friend, Dr. Whalley,* and at Guy's Cliff

, with the Greatheeds. Towards Christmas she went to Harrowgate in a very serious state of ailment. It was even doubtful, for some weeks, whether she would be able in the spring to rejoin her friends at Old Drury.

In the mean time, those friends were obliged to make a temporary change in their place of acting. The house in Drury Lane was condemned, and pulled down in the summer of 1791. Mr. Genest says, that, though many alterations had been made, no new building had been raised on the spot for 100 years. The new edifice, which has since been burned, was not finished till 1794. In the interim, the company performed at the Opera House, in the Haymarket, or, as it was called, the King's Theatre. The boxes were raised to 6s. and the pit to 3s. 6.

Sheridan was no lover of tragedy, and, on Mrs. Siddons's late secession, he was accused of having boasted that, by the strength of comedy, Drury Lane would get on without her. His company had undoubtedly great comic force, for it included Bannister, jun., Palmer, Parsons, Moody, and Wewitzer; be

* London Chronicle, 8th December, 1790.

+ Dr. Whalley wrote the “Castle of Montval,” a tragedy which was acted several years afterward.

ters.

sides the enchanting Mrs. Jordan, and Miss Farren. But it was soon found that all this constellation of gayety would not solace the public for the absent star. Her return for the winter of 1792 was therefore anxiously expected. Her health happily permitted her, on the 21st of January, to act at the Haymarket, where, in the course of the ensuing season, she performed two-and-twenty times, and in sixteen different charac.

Among these, however, there was no one that was new to her, excepting that of Queen Elizabeth, in “Richard the Third,” a part which, even in the original drama, is not of primary interest.

It is a fact not universally known, that the tragedy which was played on all our stages, since the year 1700, till some twelve years ago, was not the text of Shakspeare, but a fabrication got up by Cibber, partly out of the original, partly out of passages from other plays of Shakspeare, and partly out of materials from the brain of Colley himself. It was the fashion in the last century to admire this dramatic patch-work; and both Davies and Garrick commend it warmly. But critical opinion has of late run quite the contrary way; and Cibber is now rated like an intruding cur, for leaving the vermin of his verse in the sacred precincts of Shakspeare.

Before we condemn Cibber, let us conceive, if he had the power of speaking for himself, what he would be likely to allege. The lively old gentleman, I imagine, would say, “ You are now pleased to be very angry with me, for what it is the fashion to call my botching of Richard the Third ;' but, remember, that scarcely any of Shakspeare's tragedies were kept on the stage without material alterations. In the days of Betterton, all the powers of that great actor could not give stage popularity to · Richard the Third,' as it was written by Shakspeare. I did not create the taste of my time, I only followed and obeyed it. I launched on the stage a composite work, in which I preserved a good deal of the original, and borrowed largely from some other dramas of the divine poet. True it is, I added some of my own composition, which you angrily denominate stuff. But, with all this stuff, my edition of Richard the Third kept possession of the English stage for a hundred and twenty years. Many a writer of the eighteenth century quoted my interpolations as the pure poetry of Shakspeare, nor was it ever detected by one among myriads of his readers; and tens of myriads of spectators have gone home from seeing my fabrication of the tragedy, quoting passages of my stuff, and blessing Providence for adorning these

Islands with such a genius as Shakspeare's. In 1741, your immortal Garrick came out at Goodman's Fields; and which of the copies of the tragedy did he prefer? Why mine, and not Shakspeare's. The very line which put the first seal upon Garrick's celebrity, by the thunder of applause which followed it, Off with his head! so much for Buckingham ! that line was one of my interpolations. Garrick, Kemble, Cooke, and Kean; gained immense admiration in the tragedy such as I presented it.

“And, after all, when you were determined, some years ago, to have the genuine play of Shakspeare restored to the stage, how did the attempt succeed? It was acted twice 'at Covent Garden, and then laid aside."

To speak impartially, I think, if Cibber committed sacrilege on Shakspeare, the British public, for more than a century, was an accomplice after the fact. All this time are we to let Shakspeare himself go scot-free from blame for a tragedy, which has so far a token of unfitness for the stage, that Cibber's alteration could displace it? But the general necessity for curtailing Shakspeare's tragedies is, in reality, no reproach to him. If his plays had their old and undegenerate audiences, they would never seem too long for representation. They must now be abbreviated; because the play-goer insists on having two dramas in one night.

But the abbreviation of a Shaksperian drama is a task of some difficulty. When “Richard the Third” was restored, in 1821, it was confessed that omissions had been made, and that extraneous matter would still be introduced, in order to cement the parts disjointed by those omissions. But how was this task performed in 1821 ? Mr. Genest attributes the cold reception of the (almost) genuine

6. Richard the Third” to an actor making a ludicrous exit as the Bishop of Ely, and to the public not having been prepared by observations in the newspapers. I. suspect that the cause lay deeper; namely, in the want of the callida junctura between omissions, and in the faultiness of the abridgment itself. Mrs. Siddons made her last appearance

this season in the comic part of the “ Jealous Wife,” Mrs. Oakley. I find it generally said, that she played the character judiciously; though between that merit and excellence there is a mighty chasm.

In the personal history of Mrs. Siddons I may notice, that this year

she gave, for the last time, her advice to her eldest son, Henry, not to adopt the stage for his profession. Many

Q

a time have I heard him bitterly repent his not having followed her counsel. Henry was educated at the Charter House, and might have been elected, if he had wished it, from thence to the University. But he thought highly of his capacities for acting, and decided on making it his profession. His mother consenting reluctantly, sent him to Paris to study French and to see Le Kain.

CHAPTER XV.

[ocr errors]

Mrs. Siddons's Letter to Mr. Taylor, on his offer to write her Biography

-Re-opening of Drury Lane-An Innovation in the acting of « Macbeth”-She acts the Countess Orsina, in Lessing's Tragedy of “ Emilia Galotti”—Horatia, in Whitehead's " Roman Father”—Elvira, in Miss Burney's unfortunate Drama-Palmira, in “Mahomet”—Emmeline, in “ Edgar and Evelina”-Roxana, in “ Alexander the Great”—Julia, in Prince Hoare's Tragedy of “Such Things Were”- Almeyda, in the “Queen of Granada” — Escapes acting in Vortigern"--She is disappointed in money matters by Sheridan ; but returns to Drury Lane, in September, 1796–Takes a new Character in “ Thomson's “ Edward and Eleanora” —Acts Vitellia, in Jephson's “Conspiracy”

- Millwood, in “ George Barnwell”—Athenais, in “ Theodosius; or, the Force of Love”-Agnes, in “Fatal Curiosity.”

66

The late Mr. John Taylor, author of the facetious story of Monsieur Tonson, was among the most intimate of Mrs. Siddons's friends, and was at this time one of her most frequent correspondents. As this worthy man's Recollections of his own Life have been published, and are well known, it will be unnecessary for me to give any particular account of him. He had the most extensive acquaintance, perhaps, of any man of the age. He either knew everybody, or something about everybody. He was without gall; and his harmless pleasantry, his vast fund of anecdote, and obliging disposition, made him more popular than more talented men with less benevolent tempers. I saw much of him in his extreme old age—when he was still entertaining and cheerful; though he now and then complained of neglect from those who had known him in his palmier days, and compared himself, I fear with some justice, to the hare with many friends.

Among the letters of Mrs. Siddons which Mr. Taylor put into my hands, a few months before his death, I find an answer to one of his own, from which it appears that he had offered to the great actress to be her biographer, but that she declined wearing the additional wreath with which his kind zeal aspired to crown her celebrity.

Newnham Rectory, August 5, 1793. Indeed, my dear friend, if you were to write my praises with the pen of men and angels, I should shrink from that celebrity which the partiality of so kind a biographer would confer: for how could I read, without blushes, those accounts of myself

, which would be measures of his friendship, not standards of my worthiness. I am content that you should deceive yourself about my talents and my character, because I have an interest, and perhaps a livelier interest than most people, I believe, imagine, for the opinion of those who give themselves the trouble to think of me at all. But my friends in general are very much mistaken in my character. It has pleased God to place me in a situation of great publicity, but my natural disposition inclines me to privacy and retirement; and, though the applause that is the palm of art is necessarily sweet to my sense, yet sweeter is the still small voice of tender relatives and estimable friends. You may, therefore, tell me as much as you please of those talents with which you say I so miraculously gifted, and I will hear you with pleasure, and pray for a continuance of your illusion. But do not, I conjure you, at least till opinion has a little more sanctioned the idea, do not bid all the world gaze, and wonder, and certainly laugh, at my yet feeble efforts.

“I am very much obliged to Mrs. Robinson* for her polite attention in sending me her poems. Pray tell her so, with my compliments. I hope the poor charming woman has quite recovered from her fall. If she is half as amiable as her writings, I shall long for the possibility of being acquainted with her. I say the possibility, because one's whole life is one continued sacrifice of inclinations, which, to indulge, however laudable or innocent, would draw down the malice and reproach of those prudent people who never do ill, ' but feed, and sleep, and do observances to the stale ritual of quaint ceremony.'

The charming and beautiful Mrs. Robinson! I pity her from the bottom of my soul !

"Pray go and take Betsy to Marlborough-street, to see my bust of my little son George. I could have done it better, but

am

* Mrs. Mary Robinson, the well-known novelist and poetess.

« PreviousContinue »