I have a document on my computer where I jot down ideas for blog posts. In this place, my thoughts about Benedict Cumberbatch, Love, Death, and talking about my research languished until recently. Now, I have just two topics left. One involves carpets, the other is about a Japanese anime film. For all those who are excited about the latter, I’m afraid that today’s post is for the carpets.

A Carpet. Eighteenth-century tragic carpets were often green.
It all started when I stumbled across a comment by Francis Gentleman on Garrick’s additions to Macbeth: “a dying speech, and a very good one, has been furnished by Mr Garrick, to give the actor more éclat; but we are not fond of characters writhing and flouncing on carpets; and as from the desperate state of Macbeth’s mind we think his immediate death most natural, we could wish it to take place.” Why would Garrick be “flouncing on carpets”? I eventually got my answer from a book by Kalman Burnim called David Garrick: Director, which explained that the carpet in question was known as a ‘tragic carpet’, and was laid on the boards so that the actors’ costumes were not damaged when they died.

I mentioned the ‘tragic carpet’ in a lecture I gave two weeks ago now (preparation for which was the the cause of this blog’s hiatus, I’m afraid). When I first talked about these things, ‘tragic carpet’ was misheard as ‘magic carpet’, which, alas, is something quiet different. Once people got what I was going on about, I even had a few emails from members of my audience pointing out other appearances of the tragic carpet in literature. The best of them was in Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher residing in London to his friends in the East (1760-61) where the bemused foreign philosopher describes a particularly hectic night at the theatre as follows:

The fifth act began, and a busy piece it was. Scenes shifting, trumpets sounding, mobs hallooing, carpets spreading, guards bustling from one door to another; gods, daemons, daggers, racks and ratsbane. But whether the king was killed, or the queen was drowned, or the son was poisoned, I have absolutely forgotten.

What’s interesting about this quotation is the question it raises of how visible the carpet was. To the Chinese philosopher, casting his naïve eyes over the stage, the carpet is as ridiculous as it would be nowadays at the National Theatre. But the whole point of such a naïve point of view is that it throws up the absurd things people have become blind to (see: Candide for Voltaire’s pushing of this to the limit), hence maybe tragic carpets were not really remarked upon by the audiences of Garrick’s time, being no more noticeable than the scenery shifting or the movements of an unruly audience.

This is an important thing to bear in mind, as the temptation is to argue that the tragic carpet earnt its name as harbinger of death. If the carpet was laid out, surely we were to expect the death of one person, and, if several carpets were arranged, a bloodbath might be in the offing. This would be a great insight into eighteenth-century theatre if we could be sure of it, but I don’t think we can. As well as the arguments about a habituated audience no longer really paying it attention, there’s also the point that surely the audience would be expecting to see some carpet at the end of their tragedy, and the real shock would come if none were laid out.

To finish off this post, I’ll pick up a modern analogue to all this eighteenth-century stage business. Last year, a modernised version of Edward II ran at the National Theatre. I didn’t see it, but am told that, towards the end, a large cloth had to be laid over the stage to protect it from an imminent bloodbath. This practical concern, similar to that of the tragic carpet, had to be incorporated into the play, so much was made of a bourgeois concern cleanliness in the scrupulous arrangement of the cloth. This seems the opposite of the eighteenth-century approach, incorporation of a stage property into the world of the play, rather than Drury Lane’s reliance on a blindness arising from convention and habit. After all, there seems no other way for a carpet to be laid on Macbeth’s final battlefield…

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