Old Stragers

Pat Rogers

  • The Garrick Stage: Theatres and Audience in the 18th Century by Allardyce Nicoll
    Manchester, 192 pp, £14.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7190 0768 2
  • The Kemble Era: John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons and the London Stage by Linda Kelly
    Bodley Head, 221 pp, £8.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 370 10466 8
  • Early English Stages 1300 to 1660: Vol. 3: Plays and their Makers to 1576 by Glynne Wickham
    Routledge, 357 pp, £14.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0218 1

Is stage-history much use finally? Finally, that is, beyond all this fiddle over plans and parterres and side-boxes, the cost of nails and packthread, the greenroom gossip? I concede straight away that if you are mounting a performance, as they say, ‘in period’, then you need the basic historical dimensions and data, just as when you are playing ‘authentic’ baroque music you have to tune your strings to the right pitch. And if you are reconstructing the second Globe in Detroit, or for that matter re-erecting the Holborn Empire in Holborn, you cannot allow much latitude to guesswork. But those are special requirements, and most readers of these books will be calling up theatrical history for a broader range of in-sights. Their hopes will be only partially fulfilled.

Take first The Garrick Stage, a beautifully produced volume with an abundance of clear illustrations. It is the opus posthumus of Allardyce Nicoll, who died in 1976 after a prolific and distinguished career. His achievement was solidly built on an immense History of English Drama, which covers the entire subject down to the tiniest cranny, like some giant carpet fitted wall to wall. Erudite, energetic and purposeful, he has left us all in his debt. This work has been edited for the press by Sybil Rosenfeld, another hugely accomplished theatrical historian.

In many ways The Kemble Era is a less ambitious work. On the face of it, the aim is to chronicle the career of the Kembles, brother and sister (the later dynasty is outside Linda Kelly’s scope). However, as the subtitle hints, it is also, in some indeterminate degree, a study of theatrical life in the period. It could also be described as group biography, since the principals have to share top billing with Mrs Inchbald, Sheridan, Thomas Lawrence and Mrs Jordan. There is a curious line of contact between several of these figures: four of them were the subjects of biographies by James Boaden (1762-1839), who happened also to edit Garrick’s letters. Ms Kelly mentions these lives in her preface, and one might almost suppose that the spur for writing this book came to her from the arrival of a hoard of Boaden volumes from a relative’s will. Needless to say, she has consulted a wide variety of other materials, with a bias towards memoirs, journals and theatrical reviews. Her annals of the stage are the recollections of performers and playgoers. With Ms Kelly we are either gazing down from the gallery, or posting away to some après-show engagement. Where Nicoll is reluctant to put down his tape-measure, she is content with opera-glasses which double as a society quizzing-glass. He rarely strays from the boards, except to venture a brief peep into the box-keeper’s cubicle. She behaves more like a stage-door johnny, avidly enjoying the performance and then rushing round behind the scenes to catch the star off-duty.

There is a more significant difference between the books. Linda Kelly is always threatening to go beyond her brief, though she never quite does it. By admirable economy in writing, a capacity to avoid repeating herself, and a certain brusque confidence in making transitions, she contrives to keep her various stories going, more or less in sync. Nicoll only has one task, and he interprets it pretty narrowly from the start. Yet, as he goes on, the opportunities for broadening the theme continually open up in, you would suppose, irresistible ways. Wrong. He resists manfully. For every two steps forward into the wider intellectual possibilities of his subject, Nicoll draws us back one step, by means of reservation, scholarly caveat or stoical indifference to all that might be deemed peripheral. If you are rigorous enough, almost anything can be so deemed.

The leading figures in each book have another thing in common, apart from the ministrations of Boaden. They have a Hereford background. As the heroine of Margaret Drabble’s Garrick Year remarks, ‘it seemed that [Garrick] had been born in Hereford, as had Kemble, Mrs Siddons and Nell Gwynne, though of the four Garrick seemed to me to be the most interesting character.’ In fact, most authorities assign the Kembles’ birthplace to other parts of the country, but they certainly shared a family base in the city. The point is of some interest, because their lineage as strolling players is both historically and symbolically charged, since the development of the provincial theatre is a symptom of much that was happening inside and outside drama. Neither of the books in question spends any time on this remote origin: each is in a hurry to get its central figures established on the London stage. In particular, Linda Kelly has Mrs Siddons spring fully armed from the head of Melpemone. She is already saddled at the start with her nondescript husband and two children. One of the biographer’s economising devices is to sweep the old guard out of sight, with almost indecent haste: exit Roscius, enter (and this is where the story really begins) the new gang. Fair enough, if you know what you are doing: luckily, Ms Kelly does, for the most part.

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