The organisers of the annual BSECS conference have just confirmed that my paper on editors and actors has been accepted. As well as reporting this good news, I thought I’d take a post to sketch, however roughly, my plan for the second year of my thesis. Without further ado, then, this is what I’ll be doing over the next eight months or so.
Now to mid-November
Extend my short paper on Diderot from Yale into something more substantial about Diderot’s relation with the English stage, to be presented to the Early Modern French Seminar here in Cambridge on Friday 15th November. This shouldn’t be too hard, as I have already prepared a lot of this material and my line of argument is quite clear. To be brief, I want to show that Diderot’s striking parallel between the author’s work and that of the actor owes much to John Hill. The inadequacies of Sticotti’s translation of Hill’s The Actor inspired Diderot to write the Paradoxe, and I would like to show that Hill’s own text initiates an anxiety about authorship and actors that Diderot pushes to its extreme.
If all goes well, and my ideas are not shot down in the cut-and-thrust of a research seminar, this longish paper (thirty minutes or so) will form the basis of my chapter on the literary critical value of arts of acting.
Mid-November to January
In this period, I will return to my work on the editors of Shakespeare and their various attitudes to the stage. At first, this will be survey work: I need to go through the notes to Theobald’s edition, as well as the annotations of all those eighteenth-century editors who came after him to see what (if anything) they say about the stage. Once this preliminary work has been completed, I will then use a slice of it as the basis for my BSECS paper, to be given in early January.
January to early March
This period will be devoted to the extension of the BSECS paper on editors and actors into the draft of a chapter. I want this to be my first draft of a thesis chapter as the ideas contained within it will have to set the stage for the rest of the thesis. Not only will I be advancing a narrative of the various tensions between stage and page with regard to Shakespeare in this period, but I will also be arguing simultaneously for the interest of a thesis that takes ‘acting’ in its largest possible sense. If that wasn’t hard enough, this is also the point where I’ll be laying down the various reference points (dates, biographies, events, etc.) necessary to the comprehension of the other chapters. Two months may not be long enough.
March to the end of April
By early April, which is to say the start of Cambridge’s Easter term, and if all has gone well up to this point, the approaching deadlines for JRF and post-doc applications will probably be forcing me to polish up previous work for submission rather than breaking new ground. In this situation, These two months will involve a draft of my second chapter on theories of acting. Having just finished a draft of chapter one, I should be able to write this second chapter with a fresh memory of what I have already said and what I still need to say to maintain and elaborate upon the big picture of the thesis.
Now things get vague. I still have three chapters to draft, all of them requiring some serious research first. As things stand, I know least for the chapter on how stage practice interacts with literary critical activity; I’m a little better prepared to write about illusion, since it is close to the theories of acting; and I’m about halfway there for my final chapter on actors as ambassadors, as I will be recycling some material about literary patriotism from early in my doctoral research.
In this situation, and depending on the various JRF applications and the advice of my supervisor, I’ll have to make a choice. When I do, I’ll write another blog post like this one. I’ll also come back and read this, and – almost certainly – smile at my optimism.
At the end of my post on the collection of Richard Warner’s notes in the Beinecke, I mentioned that his editions of Shakespeare, complete with working notes on interleaved pages, had been digitised and was available online. With a day between returning from America and planning out my work for the term with my supervisor, I decided to take a look at this digital edition. This post gives some of my findings, and some of my unanswered questions.
Warner interleaved Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline. The four texts used are all single-play edition brought out by Tonson in 1734 as part of a campaign to drive the entrepreneurial Walker out of business. Antony and Cleopatra still has the denunciation of Walker’s claim that he was printing ‘stage’ versions of Shakespeare that Tonson extracted from the Drury Lane prompter Chetwood.
This choice of text is a little unusual, since – as far as I know – there was little editorial oversight of this edition, given that Tonson rushed it out to counter Walker’s opportunistic printing of cheap single-play editions. As a result of this relatively rough text, many of Warner’s notes are simply copies of comments made by other eighteenth-century editors such as Johnson, Pope or Theobald. Warburton appears too, but always to have his ideas countered in a style not too far from the Canons of Criticism.
On top of Warner’s copying of other editors and his close attention to the variations of words between editions (doubtless something of a problem for someone who wanted to offer his glossary as a ‘Shakespeare lexicon’), these interleaved texts are also remarkable for the insertion of new scene divisions. The 1734 edition of Tonson remains close to the First Folio and has relatively few scene divisions, while it was normal for eighteenth-century editors from Rowe onwards to add new divisions in accordance with the practice of the Georgian stage. Warner, however, adds more divisions than any editor I have encountered.
In a published Letter to David Garrick, which presents the project of his glossary, Warner claims that his scenes have followed the structure established by Rowe, but even brief comparison reveals this to be false. Instead, Warner appears to be following the French convention of starting a new scene with each entry or departure from the stage.
At least, that’s what I thought at first, but then I noticed that Warner is not consistent. When a servant or minor character enters (or leaves), for example, no new scene is marked. Instead, Warner seems to divide his scenes according to the theatrical effect of what is occurring in the play. This is most visible in Julius Caesar when Warner marks scenes VI and VII of the fifth act so that the visit of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus on the eve of battle becomes a distinct scene.
Now, I must admit that I did not have time to check these scene divisions against all the eighteenth-century editions of Shakespeare that Warner could have known so he may well have been copying someone else. Whether Warner was or was not following another’s practice, however, these divisions still pose the larger question of their motive: was it to facilitate the extraction of ‘beauties’ for the time-poor reader? Or was it to reflect the most spectacular moments of performance? Of course, it could also sometimes be both.
This is the first play on my list of pieces performed in the 1753-4 season that I hadn’t already read. It was written by David Garrick and first performed in November 1741, before going on to notch up over a hundred performances before Garrick’s death in 1779. An afterpiece of just two acts, it is nevertheless very entertaining, even if a little unbalanced. The character of Sharp (the lying valet of the title) was written by Garrick to be performed by himself, and the machinations of this clever servant dominate the plot of the entertainment.
The trope of the servant whose mental capacities outstrip those of his master is an old one. In this play, we soon find that, without the help of the valet Sharp, the noble but profligate Gayless would never stand a chance of getting through the two days before his marriage to the wealthy Melissa without her discovering the parlous state of his financial affairs. When Melissa’s servant, Kitty, comes to visit Gayless and Sharp, Gayless panics and fears that the truth must be exposed. Sharp’s response is typical of his character and the humour of this play.
GAYLESS Melissa has certainly heard of my bad circumstances, and has invented this scheme to distress me, and break off the match.
SHARP I don’t believe it, sir; begging your pardon.
GAYLESS No? Why did her maid then make so strict an enquiry into my fortune and affairs?
SHARP For two very substantial reasons: the first to satisfy a curiosity, natural to her as a woman; the second, to have the pleasure of my conversation, very natural to her as a woman of taste and understanding.
Sharp’s egotistic attitue to women and bluntness (the latter evident in the way he says “I don’t believe it” before tacking on the polite niceties of “sir” and “begging your pardon”) bring this dialogue to life, albeit at the cost of Gayless. Kitty’s visit has caused such a stir as she has not only seen the poverty of Gayless’s household, but also brought news of her mistress’s idea to hold a pre-nuptial ball there, an entertainment Gayless cannot possibly pay for. This problem is the first complication of the play, and soon allows us to see Sharp in all his quick-witted glory as he rushes off to see Melissa.
Sharp’s interview with Melissa is really a kind of conversational ping-pong between himself and Kitty, each trying to outmanoeuvre the other as they attempt to persuade Melissa to drop the idea of holding a banquet at Gayless’s home. Here’s one example of the servants’ clever back and forth over Melissa’s head.
KITTY Why then, I’ll tell you what, madam; since you are resolved not to go to the supper, suppose the supper was to come to you: ’tis great pity such great preparations as Mr Sharp has made should be thrown away.
SHARP So it is, as you say, Mistress Kitty. But I can immediately run back and unbespeak what I have ordered; ’tis soon done.
Sharp eventually comes out on top, and even leaves with a half-guinea tip from Melissa. As soon as he is gone, however, the first act closes with a mysterious letter arriving from Gayless’s father, Sir William. We don’t learn its contents here, and the renewed vicissitudes of Gayless in the second act soon force it from our mind.
The second act opens with another visit from Kitty to the Gayless household, this time announcing that, although the wife-to-be is staying at home, she has nevertheless invited a whole bunch of her friends over to Gayless’s, including a nephew of Melissa’s who has been in France and – worst of all for someone hunted by the bailiffs – a local justice. Faced with such a tricky conundrum, Sharp’s methods push the limits of what might be acceptable. Having directed the guests into an absent neighbour’s better-furnished apartment, Sharp proposes that he get the dozing justice to pay for the promised dinner.
SHARP I have one scheme left which in all probability may succeed. The good citizen, overloaded with his last meal, is taking a nap in that closet, in order to get him an appeitte for yours. Suppose, sir, we sould make him treat us.
GAYLESS I don’t understand you.
SHARP I’ll pick his pocket, and provide us a supper with the booty
GAYLESS Monstrous! For without considering the villainy of it, the danger of waking him makes it impracticable!
SHARP If he wakes, I’ll smother him, and lay his death to indigestion – a very common death among the justices.
The blunt suggestion of murder makes us laugh with its cartoonish desperation, but it should also make us pause for thought. The French nephew – who is really Melissa in disguise – comments not soon after this on the peculiar moral problem posed by Sharp’s machinations.
MELISSA Ha, ha, ha, what lies doth this fellow invent, and what rogueries does he commit for his master’s service? There never sure was a more faithful servant to his master, or a greater rogue to the rest of mankind […]
This is a passage worth putting alongside Mandeville’s controversial idea that private vices provide public benefits. At first glance, this seems to be the opposite, since Gayless’s profligacy has made his ingenious servants descend into darker and darker solutions; yet, at the same time, things never turn out quite as tragically as they might and indeed the play ends hapily: one might even say that Gayless’s financial vices provide the benefit of Sharp’s astute manipulation of the public.
The play’s happy ending occurs with a series of revelations, in which we realise that whilst we have been paying attention to Sharp’s last-minute escapes, a larger plot has been unfolding. The mysterious letter at the end of the first act had, it turns out, revealed everything about Gayless to Melissa, leading her to test Gayless (and his servant) with all the impositions of the second act. At the play’s end, Melissa unmasks herself and forgives Gayless. As the company prepare to dance, the irrepressible Sharp pipes up.
SHARP Oh pray, sir, have supper first, or, I’m sure, I shan’t live till the dance is finished…
That this line, the last version of a running joke about Sharp’s starvation, makes us laugh far more than the neat tying up of the romantic plotline says a great deal about this play. In 1753, it was chosen as the afterpiece to The Beggar’s Opera, and Sharp would have shone all the more brightly in such a pairing, for his scrapes and inventions are of a much lighter tone than those in Gay’s ballad opera.
This three-act play by John Gay was one of the runaway successes of the eighteenth century, and was a regular on London stages from its first performance in 1727 right into the mid-twentieth century. It still appears now from time to time. Calling this work a ‘play’ does it a bit of an injustice. Gay described it as a ballad opera, and the editor of my edition (Edgar V. Roberts) eventually sums the work up as “above all a satire, though it is also a ballad opera, a ‘Newgate [i.e. prison] Pastoral’, and a parody of both Italian opera and criminal literature.” Rigorous and academic as this is, Roberts actually quotes a much better contemporary description of The Beggar’s Opera, by Gay’s friend, the Duke of Queensberry.
This is a very odd thing, Gay; I am satisfied that it is either a very good thing, or a very bad thing.
Time has proved The Beggar’s Opera to be a very good thing, and I’ll now pick out a few of my favourite parts of it, offering a little analysis as I go.
The play (or whatever you want to call it) opens with a prologue between Beggar and Player, since the text has been written by the former. The passage – as well as offering some incidental satire on supposedly upper-class pursuits and contemporary theatregoers – also allows a neat parallel between beggar and player, since this work has apparently been performed by the beggars in the “great room at St Giles’s”, and now the players have shown their “charity in bringing it now on the stage”. Such parallels between actors and the lowest of society are often not to the performers’ credit, but Gay avoids such simple portrayals, and makes me think rather of Lamb’s On the Decay of Beggar’s in the Metropolis.
After the prologue, we jump into the grimy world of the play, meeting Mr and Mrs Peachum and their daughter Polly. The Peachums run a ring of thieves, but also act as prosecutors, thus establishing a kind of horrible double to the closed circle of eighteenth-century government and law-making. The status quo of the Peachums is disturbed, however, when Polly announces her attachment to the highwayman Macheath, a Peachum employee and thus someone the parents do not want their daughter marrying. Debates over this, as is fitting for a ‘ballad opera’, deftly incorporate songs as follows:
MRS PEACHUM […] All men are thieves in love and like a woman the better for being another’s property.
AIR V, Of All the Simple Things We Do, etc.
A maid is like the golden ore,
Which hath guineas intrinsical in’t,
Whose worth is never known before
It is tried and impressed in the mint.
A wife’s like a guinea in gold,
Stamped with the name of her spouse,
Now here, now there, is bought, or is sold,
And is current in every house.
There is much to note here, such as the way these lines bring out the omnipresent evocation and criticism of a mercenary attitude by conflating young women and coins. As regards the song itself, one might observe how its theme is announced by what Mrs Peachum says before she starts singing: such an announcement of a topic is common, and is probably there to help the audience. It may also be there, I suspect, for comic purposes, as there is often a significant disjunction between the original, well-known ballad tune and the material Gay has adapted it to. Here, it is a hardly a “simple thing” to conceive of women as currency.
There are many other comic moments in The Beggar’s Opera, only a few of which have lost their original fire, while others have perhaps improved with age, such as Mrs Peachum’s comparison of her daughter to a “cucumber”, which would have been much more comprehensible to an eighteenth-century audience that believed the cucumber to be poisonous.
Once the Peachums learn of their daguhter’s connection to Macheath, they resolve to have him apprehended and executed as a thief. Despite Polly’s warnings, her parents succeed, trapping Macheath when he is surrounded by a band of ‘city women’. The dialogue which follows shows better than any other, the way that The Beggar’s Opera manages to combine low and high so successfully.
MACHEATH Was this well done, Jenny? – Women are decoy ducks; who can trust them! Beasts, jades, jilts, harpies, furies, whores.
PEACHUM Your case, Mr Macheath, is not particular. The greatest heroes have been ruined by women. But to do them justice, I must own they are a pretty sort of creatures, if we could trust them. You must now, sir, take your leave of the ladies, and if they havea mind to make you a visit, they will be sure to find you at home. The gentleman, ladies, lodges in Newgate. Constables, wait upon the Captain to his lodgings.
AIR XXV, When first I laid siege to my Chloris…
MACHEATH At the tree I shall suffer with pleasure […]
Be careful not to overlook the massive irony of Macheath singing lines on his imminent hanging (the “tree” refers to the gallows) to the tune of a pastoral love song here, while the combination of gallows and pastoral is indicative of larger ironic conflations too. Macheath, a highwayman, is no different from the “greatest heroes”, and indeed has Peachum describe his imprisonment as a kind of forced entry into a gentlemanly life. The lines bite both ways, Peachum is mocking Macheath’s pretensions, but in comparing the robber and the gent, is also bringing down the nobleman.
In prison, the plot of The Beggar’s Opera thickens, as we discover that Lucy, the daughter of the jailkeeper Lockit, is also pledged to Macheath. She springs the highwayman, who is then recaptured. Lucy also meets Polly, goes to poison her but fails in the attempt. Comically writing off her animosity with a shrug, she and Lucy retire, a move prompted not least by the imminent arrival of some dancing prisoners.
POLLY Sure there is nothing so charming as music. I’m fond of it to distraction. But alas! Now, all mirth seems an insult upon my affliction. Let us retire, my dear Lucy, and indulge our sorrows. The noisy crew, you see, are coming upon us.
The dance of the prisoners is one of the big set-pieces of the third act. It also, I think, echoes the Jacobean play The Changeling, which has a dance of madmen in it. There’s no way to be sure of this, and Gay certainly has the conventions of contemporary opera more in his sights than Jacobean drama; even so, it’s an intriguing parallel, and fits with the quotations from well-known Shakespeare plays. Perhaps it’s all part of creating a ‘native’ operatic tradition.
After the dance, Macheath, with a series of airs, composes himself for death. Before he leaves the prison, he meets four more women all claiming to be his wife, and so seems comically glad to get off to the gallows. At this point, the play is interrupted and we return to the Beggar and the Player of the prologue. At the player’s importuning, the Beggar decides to alter his plot and save Macheath.
BEGGAR Your objection, sir, is very just, and is easily removed. For you must allow that in this kind of drama ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about. – So, you rabble there, run and cry a reprieve. Let the prisoner be brough back to his wives in triumph.
This is a neat reversal from the opening of the play (and of society more generally) in that the Beggar now has all the power, with the Player (and the audience through the Player) asking him to do them the favour of saving Macheath.
Of course, though, things are not quite so simple as that. Macheath is indeed saved, but the plot does not stop there. The highwayman goes on to claim Polly as his wife in an even happier ending than the one suggested by the Player. He then sings the ambiguous lines of the last air, picked up by the Chorus. The strength of these words lies in the use of the modal verb ‘may’.
But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow:
The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow.
I’m sure there’s something of the enduring appeal of The Beggar’s Opera in these lines, and their carefully ironic optimism.
This is my last and shortest post from the Beinecke materials for now, and it will focus exclusively on the notes of Richard Warner, a friend of David Garrick who began an edition of Shakespeare but abandoned his efforts when he learnt of preparations for the Steevens edition. What remains of Warner’s attempt to become a Shakespeare editor includes various letters proposing emendations (including one to Garrick about what was meant by a ‘periwig’ in Elizabethan England), a published Glossary to Shakespeare, dedicated to Garrick, and a large pile of manuscript notes, held at Yale and unlike anything else I was looking at on my visit. Given the connections between Warner and Garrick, my hope was that these notes would reveal the embryonic form of an edition of Shakespeare’s works more sympathetic to the stage than that of Pope.
Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case. The notes themselves consist largely of methodical lists of words in need of glossing or of apparent meanings that lack an authority. There’s also a little volume which looks like an address book and lists the dates and works of Shakespeare’s contemporary writers under the first letter of their surname. Amongst all these lists, however, there is precious little to support my starting hunch. Words from the theatre are rarely marked out for a gloss: only ‘abridgement’ and ‘excursions’ get this treatment. Similarly, it is tempting to see some sympathy for the stage in the way Warner leaves out ‘players’ from the possible sources of mistake he’s spotted in As You Like It, it being simply the fault, in his view, “of the author or editor”. Any conclusions based on this, however, may well be forcing things.
What I did get from going through these piles of notes, however, is a sense of the labour such an edition would need. This post therefore will be largely made of captioned pictures, and I’ll finish simply by saying that some of Warner’s editorial work can be seen online in the Beinecke’s digitisation of his interleaved Shakespeare.
This post is only going to deal with the Beinecke’s William Smith papers, as its topic is nostalgia. I quoted Loftt’s reminiscences about how Garrick inspired him in an earlier post, and this time I want to explore other similar instances in letters sent to William Smith. Of course, it is not surprising to find such letters in Smith’s possession: he trained under Garrick and, even after his retirement, still represented something of a bastion of the golden era of acting at a time when the state of the stage was deplored more and more often.
That the best years of British theatre were over is the larger idea behind, for example, Thomas Coutts’ report to Smith of a reading given by an ageing Sarah Siddons in 1808.
Mrs Siddons has been reading Hamlet & The Merchant of Venice at the Hotel here & had many auditors – but I had no desire to be of the number – it seems to me one of the porrest of all amusements – and, I should think to understand an Author it is best to read to yourself – unless you were at liberty to interrupt & to discourse with the reader, & compare your feeling of a passage with his – I saw her as Catherine in Henry VIII last monday and was very tired of her – it is time for her to have done.
Similarly, albeit with considerably more measured tones, Sir George Beaumont wrote the following to Smith in 1805.
I still continue a warm admirer of the theatre, but it is of the old school. I have seen fine spectacles,
but very little nature of late years, measured steps, super exalted looks, & something approaching recitation, may surprise, but will never be eagerly followed, & I have frequently prophesised whenever nature revisits the stage, people will exclaim there is the old school again! & rush like madmen to the theatre.
This picks up on the oft-used way of praising Garrick as someone whose art was “nature”. What is important here too, though, is that Garrick’s way of acting has become generalised into the “old school”. In part, this is a compliment to Smith, who was part of the “old school”, but it also suggests something about Garrick’s longevity, that he lived on not just in specific details of performance, but in a wider style of acting. The proof for this is in the various modifications brought to the name of David Garrick across Smith’s correspondence, a body of work in which he figures so frequently that I started wondering at one point if Smith was actively soliciting his friends for memories of the theatres good old days.
Here are a few of these modifications. Beaumont in November 1807 praises the actor Bowles as “a firm stickler for nature & the old school & I believe as correct a Garrickean as any living”, conflating Garrick and the “old school” and coining an adjective in the process. Thomas Coutts in 1791 wishes for “a Garrick” to rejuvenate the stage in a phrase where the addition of the indefinite article turns the specific actor into a type. John Byng uses the same trick when he praises Smith as “a Garrick” while a poem from Lofft in praise of Smith speaks more tenderly of “thy Garrick”.
I suppose I pick up on this nostalgia, and its strange coalescence around the figure of David Garrick because it strikes me as an interesting way of looking at the legacy of the ephemeral actor. Garrick lives on in these texts not as a specific character but rather as a kind of generalised model. This distinguishes him from other eighteenth-century figures like Sterne, who found immortality as a version of a character (or characters) they created. We think of Yorick or of Tristram when we try to picture Sterne; but when we think of Garrick there is no single image, but rather a hoard of Richard IIIs, Hamlets, Romeos, Benedicks, Able Druggers and more, united only in a sense that Garrick somehow acted in a way more true to nature. It is that fidelity that many of these letters mourn.