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.

A narrative so quickly into its stride never slackens in energy. The events chronicled (the rise and fall of Master Betty, the Old Prices riots) have not exactly gone unrecorded until the present, but they are handled with some freshness. As an analysis of developments in dramatic theory and practice, the book is not quite so effective, but even here the discussion is sensible and functional. Kemble’s ambition to purify the repertoire and get back to older ways of doing things comes in for sympathetic attention. We have the story of the actor’s coughing off the stage a melodrama based on Caleb Williams; and a just appraisal of Mrs Siddons’s superior powers as a performer. We hear of her brother, with his poor singing voice, ‘murdering’ Grétry – the word is the Irish tenor Michael Kelly’s – and we witness a number of total theatrical flops, which have always provided good copy for the annalist.

Of course, it is all very much in the anecdotal line. Is it any the worse for that? Ms Kelly is not writing for a specialist audience, and twice-told tales always reach some new ears. Besides, in this particular period there was a strong impulse to collect ana. (There is a good discussion of this urge in Lawrence Lipking’s Ordering of the Arts in 18th-Century England, of 1970. This excellent book is too little known by those who, understandably, don’t care to hang around the Augustan parish-pump.) But then it may be objected that anecdotes sidetrack us from the real life of the drama. It is true that when Michael Kelly tells us in his Reminiscences about Mozart playing billiards or drinking punch, this doesn’t take us any nearer the creative heart of Figaro. But it doesn’t deflect us much, either: and I would as soon witness Mozart playing on his violon d’Ingres as measure out the orchestra pit at Mannheim.

The trouble is, in the end, that the Kemble era is just too well reported. When the performances of a period are imperfectly chronicled, then we are led to reflect on the transience of the actor’s art. Instead of fantasising about the gaps that can never be filled, we are impelled to scrutinise what evidence has come down. But the heyday of Romantic acting was also the heyday of theatrical journalism: and there is an inexhaustible flow of brilliant description. Hazlitt, Lamb, Leigh Hunt – one or another is bound to be in the audience. Besides, the solid diarists like Henry Crabb Robinson or Farington will have made an entry: if all else fails, Fanny Burney will have been told what went on at a first night by someone less squeamish in the choice of entertainment. And for a little filling-in of background information, there is always the wandering patentee, Tate Wilkinson, whose memoirs reveal him to have met almost everyone mentioned in this review (it was only an accident of history, one feels, that prevented him from getting to know Allardyce Nicoll). They form together a marvellous witness to the age. But they are, in a literal sense, superabundant. From the footlights down, to paraphrase Fats Waller, there are just too many footlights: too many Covent Garden drolleries, too many nights at the opera. Linda Kelly does her best to keep our eyes on the stage, but the brilliance of the spotlight dazzles our gaze. The thing we contemplate is not Edmund Kean, his very self and voice, but the Kean of William Hazlitt. The radiance of the report obscures that which is reported.

Ms Kelly writes clearly for the most part, seldom with elegance. She gets into some frightful muddles of syntax: ‘Family commitments, among them to her stepson George, an unsuccessful actor, forced her [Mrs Inchbald] to live as economically as ever, but her beauty, her charm and her growing reputation gained her the entrance to a wide and interesting circle, ranging from figures such as William Godwin – who called her “a piquant mixture between a milkmaid and a lady” – to the elegant Sir Charles Bunbury, formerly the husband of the Lady Sarah Lennox with whom George III had been so much in love before duty forced him to marry his German queen.’ There’s also a Victorianism of outlook, in assertions such as one to the effect that Mrs Siddons’s loss of popularity at one time was the fault above all of ‘the fickle public ... for whom no figure, however admired, can remain an idol for too long’. This is to explain the unsurprising by appealing to the unlikely.

So we return to Allardyce Nicoll, vastly more learned, up-to-date on his facts, meticulous in detail, eloquent in his faintly prim way. He has been splendidly served by his publishers, for the entire volume is a joy to the eye, and within limits to the imagination as well. Nicoll frequently asks us to exercise our imagination, and that is a reasonable request: picture yourself here, he enjoins us, or let us imagine this or that. No one could fail to learn a great deal about life on the ground in an 18th-century playhouse. The author asks us to lift our eyes briefly to the gods, to gauge (in very rough terms) the social quality of the audience in the upper gallery. But most of the time we operate at floorboard level, teasing out the ground-plan and groping about to locate props and decor.

The book is divided into six chapters. An introductory, section devoted to the age of Garrick flits all too briefly through acting styles, the Shakespeare vogue and other topics. The second chapter discusses with equal rapidity ‘the idea of the mid – 18th-century theatre’, which turns out to mean essentially the use of the extended platform to do most dramatic business, with the dark inner stage occupied only by the most downtrodden and upstaged of the cast. Chapter Three contains a fascinating account of the physical structure of playhouses. Then come ‘Mixing with the Audience’ and ‘Lights and Scenes’; we end with a chapter on ‘Costume Old and New’.

It is instructive to compare this lay-out with that employed in a work whose title suggests a more or less identical scope: Theatre in the Age of Garrick (1973), by Cecil Price. The two books are indeed comparable in many respects. Price’s text is perhaps a little longer, though he has far fewer, and less glossy, illustrations. He, too, has sections on costume and on the audience. But he devotes attention to matters that Nicoll handles only in a glancing fashion: opera and ballet, the attraction of spectacle, criticism, theatres outside London. Crucially, too, he has a long chapter on acting, and one called ‘Plays’ that considers the stock repertoire of the age. Even on apparently common ground, Price is often fuller in discussion: he tells us more about Garrick than does Nicoll, who uses the actor to operate as a benign presence rather than a biographic agent. Price is a little more informative on costume, too: Nicoll concentrates largely on questions of period authenticity, and doesn’t care to explore wider issues. He notes, for example, that Charles Macklin wore a quasi-Jacobean dress as Shylock, while the other participants seemingly wore modern clothes. This is deeply suggestive of the rise of a star system, of the tendency to romanticise Shylock’s ‘difference’, of the total lack of team spirit in any 18th-century theatrical aggregation, where rehearsals were minimal and direction negligible. There is no reference to any such implications. In passing, it should be said that both Nicoll and Price would have been much better placed to think about these matters had they been able to consult Anne Buck’s Dress in 18th-century England (1978), whose immense range of sound research makes it far more easy to draw out the cultural meanings of dress, on and off the stage.

Nicoll’s capacity to deal with all the things he leaves out cannot be questioned. What one may regret is his narrow view of his own remit. We now have the astonishingly detailed record of performances in that blockbuster of scholarship. The London Stage: the same publishers. Southern Illinois University Press, are currently engaged on an equally valuable dictionary of stage personnel – not just actors and actresses, but dancers, musicians and managers. It has not yet crept on very far through the alphabet, but as with the telephone directory it’s amazing how much you can find out just with A to D. In addition, there have been reprints of the acting editions of Shakespeare used in the mid-century, so that the revamped repertoire is available for scrutiny as well as the new productions of the day. On these and other topics, Nicoll was well qualified to speak.

In essence, Nicoll chose to take an archaeological approach to his subject. This is reflected first in the elaborate plotting of the sites. It emerges, too, in the constant scrutiny of data – here a debate over conflicts of evidence, there a demurrer concerning somebody’s testimony. Some of the nicest prints reproduced in the book are immediately cut down to size in the text, on account of their limited documentary value. It’s like being present at a dig, where none of the excavators can quite agree on just what the trowel has scooped out. Moreover, Nicoll moves with extreme caution from fact to deduction, when he makes the move at all. He notes that Dublin scenery in the 1750s included the following: ‘Temples, Tombs, City Walls and Gates, Out-sides and Insides of Palaces, Streets and Chambers, Prisons, Gardens and Rural prospects of groves, forests, deserts’. These may have been ‘token backgrounds’, as Nicoll puts it: but they precisely define the typical imaginative milieu of 18th-century plays. One could write an essay on the mental space of Augustan drama in terms of the recurrence of such settings. Nicoll, fully capable of such an exercise, merely lists them in his inventory.

Equally revealing is the book’s reluctance to get too closely involved in performing practice. Three examples may suffice. On Garrick’s ‘natural’ style of acting, Nicoll stops with Aaron Hill’s theories: he doesn’t relate the issue to the broader rhetorical ideas of Thomas Sheridan, and doesn’t mention the systems of vocal notation devised to chart speech patterns (the recent British Library exhibition on Garrick illustrated these). Second, though his unrivalled knowledge of European sources enables Nicoll to compare English playhouses with those in France, Germany and Italy, he refrains from examining the practices found in surviving theatres of the 18th-century kind. There is an account of the machinery used in such surroundings: what Nicoll omits is our modern knowledge of how you work such equipment and how it affects the mode of theatricality you can achieve. A clear example lies to hand in the Swedish court theatre at Drottningholm. This has been widely used for opera for several years, and its performing possibilities have been analysed by Roger Savage among others. In this book the backstage equipment is industrial archaeology.

This omission connects with Nicoll’s squeamishness about using evidence from the opera-house. He passes over almost all the material from the Haymarket Theatre: arguably, this is right because it was out of bounds to Garrick – but that consideration does not always inhibit the author. Closer to the mark, I suspect, is his opinion on the form practised there: ‘The truth is that the Italian style of opera always seemed, in 18th-century England, somewhat awkward and out of its element – a fashionable toy, no doubt, but something indulged in rather because of the dictates of the prevailing mode.’ In these airy phrases Nicoll is dismissing Handelian works such as Giulio Cesare. Serse and Ottone, surely the greatest newly-created productions that the English stage witnessed in the century – and I do not exclude The Beggar’s Opera or The School for Scandal from this reckoning. The tone is likewise snooty towards John Rich: we must hope that the fuller knowledge of Covent Garden practice which is beginning to emerge will permit less condescending treatment.

It should be said that Nicoll is good, though brief, on Garrick as director, at a time when London companies generally lacked all discipline and cohesion. But Garrick the man is a total absentee, as is the book-collector, playwright and littérateur. We are told that Dr Johnson wrote prologues for Drury Lane; that notabilities attended the theatre; and that major painters illustrated many performances (though the focus of interest is how reliably they do so, from the point of view of reconstructing the scene). It is of course important to get details right: the ease with which slips creep in is shown by Nicoll’s own misdating of a Hayman portrait in turn as ‘1700’ and ‘1800’ (the year of its exhibition). But one looks for some wider sense of the culture in which Garrick was so deeply immersed – the world of Fox, Sheridan, Reynolds, Gibbon, Burke, Boswell and Johnson. After all, Garrick achieved a remarkable feat in elevating the status of the stage at a time when creative dramaturgy had been stopped in its tracks by the Licensing Act of 1737. His attainment needs to be viewed as a human triumph and a great social coup, as well as a technical advance.

The latest volume in Glynne Wickham’s magisterial survey of Early English Stages shows what can be done in the matter of close analysis of dramatic conventions. Admittedly, the monumental scale of Wickham’s enterprise allows him more elbow-room: he has already devoted three instalments of this work to the historical setting in which the theatre grew up and the physical conditions in which it operated. Now he has turned his attention to the playwrights and their works. Both visual and verbal devices are explored in detail, with abundant reference to texts both obscure and (relatively) familiar. This volume reviews the evidence from medieval and Tudor drama, bringing the story almost up to the Elizabethan efflorescence. A final volume is still to come, carrying events up to 1660. Wickham is unrivalled in learning and powers of observation, which enable him to crack the codes of dramaturgy: he reads form and scenic logic as easily as he catches allusions or verbal nuance. A great span of significant theatrical history is opened up without fuss or scholarly overkill.

The middle of the 18th century gave the drama a true cultural centrality, even when no worthwhile new plays were reaching the boards. To understand how that can have been, we need to look beyond the narrower sort of theatrical history. I do not ask that studies in this area should become literary: rather, more truly dramatic.

Garrick’s immortality, in the last analysis, has little to do with theatrical conditions – nothing at all to do with the position of stage-doors, or the shape of the auditorium, of the placing of grenadiers on the proscenium. It was his presence which electrified observers: his art which drew the tributes of a whole generation of cultivated men and women. Garrickiana won’t do – but neither will transactions of the corporation of stage historians. If the actor’s death ‘eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure’, then we must get beyond the foppery to recapture something of that reserved finery, that elegant restraint, which the Georgian arts of performance held so mysteriously at their command.