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  • First Nights of My Young Days

    by Godfrey Turner

              From: The Theatre, a monthly review of drama, music and fine arts
                New Series, Vol VIII, December 1st, 1886

              It was either to the largest or to one of the smallest theatres in London that I was taken as a child between five and six years old, five-and-fifty years ago. My purpose in this and in other papers which may follow is to write my recollections of first nights as first nights, in the sense commonly understood ; but I shall be pardoned if I make a start with my own particular first night in front of a play and I strongly incline to the belief that this event must have occurred when I was taken to see Wallack in "The Brigand." It is true that my early remembrance of the old Strand Theatre, whither I often went as quite a little boy, is more vague and indistinct than this reminiscence of Drury Lane. On a hasty consideration, its vagueness might be taken for proof of remoter juvenility. I must have been very young indeed when I burst into shrill, gleeful laughter as the curtain rose upon a ludicrous scene in "The Turned Head," all the audience except myself preserving a decorous silence. But the mere fact that I carried away with me impressions that were faint compared with those I derived from the performance of Wallack on the larger stage is, on second thoughts, no proof that I was older or younger at the time. Indeed on that very night of "The Brigand" I must have seen other things which I have clean forgotten. Probably these were "The Belle's Stratagem" and "Deaf as a Post"; and if such was the case, I saw Dowton in the first and Liston in the second, with Wallack as Doricourt, and Mrs. Waylett as Letitia Hardy, and Miss Mordaunt (afterwards Mrs. Nisbett, afterwards Lady Boothby) as Lady Frances Touchwood, and Mrs. Orger as Mrs. Racket, and Cooper as Sir George, without being durably impressed by any one of them, though I was in later time to make acquaintance with nearly all. Of Liston, at any period, I remember nothing, of Dowton next to nothing, of Mrs. Waylett little else than her singing of "The Light Guitar" and "Meet me by Moonlight alone." It was the new drama of "The Brigand" that filled my little mind, to the exclusion of all beside, though it was the last thing in the bill, and by rights I should have been asleep.

              Eastlake had painted for the Royal Academy two pictures in the Salvator Rosa vein; one of them, an Italian brigand-chief reposing, and the other, a brigand's wife watching the progress of a battle. These tableaux were realised in the first act. Maria Grazie, the brigand's wife, was Mrs W. Barrymore, and though I had scarcely set up as a critic at the tender age of five and a half, "I knew what I liked," and I certainly did like Mrs. W. Barrymore. In the first scene, which occupied, if I remember aright, all the first act, Wallack, who pleased me mightily, both then and in after years, made a most comely bandit, rather dandified perhaps, but gallant and gay. I am afraid we should laugh at the character nowadays, and the sentiment, and the situations, though I don't know why we should. They were not half so outrageous as some that I have seen and heard in these latter days. Do any of my readers remember the plot of Planché's old melodrama? If so, they can check me if I am wrong. What I saw I saw, and can tell pretty plainly, but I may have mistaken some of the purport of it. So far from this having been the first night of "The Brigand," I should say it was nearer the fiftieth; for it had been a good deal talked of before I saw it.

              How it came to pass that Alesandro Massaroni, illegitimate son of Prince Bianchi, Governor of Rome, was chief of the brigands, I can't pretend to say. It was so long ago and so far off, In the mountain- fastnesses where Massaroni's band seem on good terms with the neighbouring peasantry, and where there is a by no means unfrequented footpath, Mr. Wallack, picturesquely cross-gartered, is first seen reposing, even as Mr. Eastlake's model had reposed, for the celebrated picture. I remember that he, Mr. Wallack, or Massaroni, seemed to be tenderly regardful of a miniature which he wore by a ribbon suspended about his neck, and which he kissed with much affectionate fervour. His buoyancy, however, masters the emotion which a sight of the miniature has called up; and Massaroni is himself again. He is very much himself when he plays off a trick on an old steward, who is travelling along the footpath and is caught by the brigands. This wary old fellow has no money about him, not a stiver. He willingly submits to be searched, but shows a suspicious solicitude to keep possession of his long staff, which Massaroni playfully seizes and breaks across his knee. Then, forth roll the shining pieces, which are scrambled for by the brigands; and off goes the steward, much incensed by the knavery of the band and their leader. Two young Frenchmen, students travelling in search of the picturesque, come on the scene. One of them makes a picture of Massaroni. I have a dim idea that they depart with gratitude to him for setting them free when the band would have held them prisoners for ransom. The scene and the act close, I think, with the episode of the battle or skirmish between the brigands and the Papal troops, the latter being repulsed. There is a ravine at the back of the stage, the fight going on below, and Maria watching it as she stands on the edge of the height, holding on by a tree. Mrs. Barrymore was excellent in this. She was one of the old school of pantomimists, now quite gone out. I can call to mind her face when I see an artist's model, or a girl pulling along a piano-organ, poor wench, habited in the peasant costume, with the flat folded white linen head-gear, and the large hoop-earrings. Fair Maria Grazie! Courageous Mrs. Barrymore! I see you now as well as if I had before my eyes the picture by Eastlake. As well ? How infinitely better!

              It is not with absolute certainty, though with something near conviction, that I speak of Mrs. B. as the original Maria. The piece must have run a month, and may perhaps have had a rest, when I saw it in the autumn of 1830. But of course I know, as everyone knows, that Wallack was the original Massaroni. What a thoroughly satisfying actor he was in parts such as this ! Ten, or twelve, or it may be fifteen years afterwards, I saw him play a superfine brigand, a rather weak imitation of Massaroni and Fra Diavolo mixed up, in a piece from the French, temp. Louis XV., at the Princess's. What there was to make of it he made, like a thorough stage-gentleman, the best of his vigorous type at the time, though he was then almost in the sere, the yellow leaf. I can imagine that those who were old enough then to have seen Jack Bannister could pick holes in the coat of Jem Wallack, just as I, who saw J.W. in his prime, might speak with stinted and qualified praise of X. Y. Z. But how do we really know that Bannister's sailors, for instance, were so much superior to "Tippy" Cooke's, or that Mrs. Crouch and the "syren Billington" were unapproached by Louisa Pyne ? The second act of "The Brigand," with which drama we are now concerned, introduces us to the splendid saloon of Prince Bianchi, who is going to hold a reception and give a ball in celebration of his daughter Ottavia's birthday, He presents her with a casket of beautiful diamonds, with which she is of course delighted; and the pleased expression of Miss Faucit seemed to my childish taste very natural, as I have no doubt it seemed to older judgments as well. One of the travelling students is Ottavia's drawing master and he shows her the likeness of the terrible brigand, tidings of whose victory over the troops have reached the Governor, greatly to his anger and mortification. Among the guests, Massaroni himself comes, under a feigned name and in the most patrician attire. He ingratiates himself with the Prince and Ottavia, his manners, of course, being such as to charm everyone. He admires Ottavia's jewels, having a taste for such things, and examines them curiously-- with some dry remarks which tickled the audience--before returning them with a graceful bow. The conversation turns on Massaroni, and, the sketch being talked of, Ottavia runs off to fetch it, to the confusion and dismay of the artist, pledged in gratitude not to betray the man who saved him from the brigands. All are astonished by the resemblance of the drawing to the distinguished guest, who, however, passes the thing off with elegant effrontery. "I have seen Massaroni," he says, "and I cannot say this is a good portrait. Indeed, now I look at it closely, I really think it is more like me." Massaroni takes a hand at cards with some high officer of the Vatican, and wins ; throws dice and wins ; excels in everything. Ottavia has asked him to sing. He takes a guitar, and sings a little ballad.

              This song, "Gentle Zitella," as sung and acted by Wallack, with the quiet, expressive by-play of Miss Faucit to make it, in pantomime, a duet, took the town by storm. Everywhere "Gentle Zitella" was sung, played, hummed, whistled. The tune is now old enough to be almost new ; and when I heard it played, two or three days ago, by a street-clarinet, the old time came back to me, as to Claud Melnotte, at the sound of a voice. Massaroni stops short at the end of a stanza which does not close the song. He is pressed by Ottavia and others to sing on to the conclusion. It is an awkward thing to do, but he puts a bold face on the matter, and continues thus:-

              		Gentle Zitella,
              			Beware, ah, beware!
              		List ye no ditty,
              			Grant ye no prayer.
              		To your light footsteps
              			Let terror add wings:
              		'Tis - Massaroni
              			Himself who now sings!
              		Gentle Zitella,
              			Banish all fear;
              		Love's ritornella
              			Tarry and hear.
              It is impossible for me to doubt that Wallack impressed the house even as he impressed the youngest of his audience- myself. The thunders of applause ring in my ears now. You will observe that after the alarming disclosure of terrific personality, the singer re-assures the damsel by a return to the soft and soothing accents of the song. With his most dulcet and insinuating tones, the actor murmured the phrase, "Banish all fear," and Miss Faucit, having but the moment before shrunk, with a very genuine look of terror, from the man who had frightened her by feigning to be himself, seemed to lead in applauding the singer's dramatic ability. The scene proceeds. In the midst of dancing and the hum of conversation, the old man whose concealed ducats had been strewn on the mountain road, by the breaking of his hollow staff, enters the saloon with a message, and in astonishment and dismay at sight of the brigand chief exclaims aloud, "Massaroni!" There is a scream and a general rush for the doors, the room being quickly emptied, and the locks all fastened on the trapped chief. In his endeavour to escape, he draws aside a curtain which may, as he hopes, be the portière screening some forgotten outlet. It conceals no doorway, but only a picture, a portrait. Struck with the gentle, compassionate look, he snatches the miniature from his breast and compares the faces. They are the same. Someone, I think it is the kind artist, now steals into the room and hastily concerts with Massaroni a plan of retreat. There is no time for explanation, but, speaking entirely from memory, and not having seen the play or the play-book since I was in the ugly dress of a little boy in those days, I fancy the brigand gets some inkling of his parentage. He takes to flight through a side-window. Then the door at the back is flung open, and soldiers in white uniform--yes, white uniform! I cannot forget them or their coats--draw up to the window, and, taking the word of command from their officer, make ready, present, fire. A few moments more, and Massaroni staggers on the stage, falls, and dies, the disclosure of his story being made in the presence of his remorseful father.

              I have now recalled, doubtless imperfectly and with some unavoidable errors, the skeleton of a romantic drama which I saw, and which gave me pleasure, if not profit, when I was a very young child, fifty-five years ago. Perhaps I should not much care to see it again in its integrity, however well mounted and well played. Mercy forbid I should ever see it as it would most probably be presented now, that is to say, as a burlesque, under some such title as "Little Massaroni, the Boy Brigand; of, The Maid, the Masher, the Mystery, and the Penny Dreadful," Massaroni being performed (for the most part extempore) by some popular actress popularly spoilt for acting, and the principal female characters being men. I can imaging that in some such version the guitar song would be altered to suit a breakdown and a banjo, that an immensity of fun would be got out of the card-table business, that the picture of Massaroni's mamma would be made a "practicable" caricature with rolling and squinting goggle eyes, that the file of white-coated soldiery would be composed of girls in gaiters, with toy guns from the Lowther Arcade, and that all the meaning of the original romance (which I have essayed to summon from the past) would be carefully knocked out of it to make way for buffoonery and those peculiar puns with which the yet more peculiarly rhymed burlesque of our generation is politely required and supposed to "bristle." E.g.:--

                How doth the busy brigand take his walks
                Abroad, and gather money, spoons, and forks,
                Or anything that he may come across,
                 As, for example's sake, let's say a horse,
                Or straying pug-dog round the corner caught,
                Watches, umbrellas, anything, in short!
                I'd hayve those jewels off the fair Ottavia,
                If I weren't here upon my best behaviour.
                By aid of jemmy should the gems be torn
                From this proud swell ; as well they'd keep in pawn.
                No scruples, I confess, my purpose bar,
                Bar one; that scruple is the girl's papa.
                The thought of ways and means, I mean much more
                Than scruples weigh, if any way I saw.
              And so on; the sort of thing, in fact, which an "incorrigible," if sentenced to six months of it, would tell the beak he could "do on his head." I suppose that the sorry, tiresome stuff, neither worse nor better than this, which men of brains and classic nurture condescend without shame to spin by the yard, serves well enough to fill up manuscript which, after all, will only be mangled or left out by the actors to suit their own notions of rhythmic humour.

              On the whole my early years of understanding fell in an age not unpropitious to the drama. A few good authors, since famous, were beginning to write plays which are not forgotten, and which fitted the actors of the time as they were intended to fit them. Kean, by the bye, whom I somehow missed, was beholden to no contemporaneous writer. Dowton was disappearing; so was Liston; and, as I have said, though I may have seen both, I remember neither. Nor can I call to mind much of Charles Kemble, on the stage, though I saw him pretty often in private life, when he was an old man and I a boy. The last time was at an opening performance of "The Taming of the Shrew," under Webster's management, at the Haymarket, when a somewhat pedantic attempt was made to realise the idea of the "play within a play." At the end of the performance Kemble stepped behind, I at the same time accompanying an elder relative of my own; and I heard C. K. compliment very graciously Mrs.Nisbett on her Katharina, and speak to Webster with polite cordiality, without praising his Petruchio, which indeed might have been equivocally defined in the phrase, " 'Good' is not the word." For this clever actor, who could play many parts superlatively, was not entitled to reckon Petruchio among them. I saw Charles Kemble himself in Petruchio and in two other characters, namely Pierre in "Venice Preserved" and Mercutio, two nights running, the circumstances being somewhat remarkable. On the former of these consecutive occasions--the great actor's gifted and amiable daughter being the Juliet--there was so bad a Romeo that he only lasted one night, and was replaced, the following evening, by a novice , who could not be worse, had he tried, but was scarcely better. The first of these Montagues roared like a bull of Bashan; the second cooed as mildly as a sucking dove, and at times was not to be heard at all. Their names I know not. Accident-- the accident of kinship--made me a reader and spectator of plays at an extremely juvenile period of my existence; and I may as well say that when Charles Kemble was playing Mercutio at Covent Gardens, with a futile change of Romeos, an uncle of mine was cast in the modest rôle of old Montague. The cat is fairly out of the bag, and now you know how I came to be such a very young playgoer. That good uncle, and bad actor, lived an odd sort of life, but settled down at last into a snug independence, and died comparatively rich from houses and money luckily left him, or he would never have had either. I speak of him with honour, as of a man of the warmest heart and kindest disposition, with only one unflinching, remorseless, irreconcileable enemy in the world.

              Though so many of the good actors remaining over from the last century had begun to drop away from the stage when I, in the 'thirties, had entered my early course of delight in this mimic life, others were coming on to fill their orbits. I have always regretted that I never saw Edmund Kean. That he would have fascinated me more than any other tragedian I have good reason to think. He was, if I mistake not, the only living male actor, when I was a child, and when my father's, my uncle's, and my own dear friend, Leigh Hunt, was writing, single-handed, "The Tatler," to whom this past-master of theatrical criticism accorded the full honours of genius in the capacity of a dramatic exponent. Now, Leigh Hunt was fairly open to the charge of being an inveterate laudator temporis acti. His early critiques, first in "The News" and then in "The Examiner," written a good many years--sixteen to twenty, that is to say--before I was born, and when he himself was youthful, were, of course, pretty free from "bygones." Yet, when he came to look back, in after years, at Bannister and Mrs. Jordan, how much more affectionately he spoke of them than when he had had them in actual view, when George the Third was King, or than he could find it in his heart to speak of living players! But of Kean, and of Kean alone, he wrote with unqualified praise in the nightly and daily records of that unrivalled actor's achievements. Leigh Hunt never, he declared again and again, saw Kean without being moved, and moved, too, in fifty different ways--by his sarcasm, his sweetness, his pathos, his tranquillity, his measureless dignity, his exceeding grace, his gallant levity, his noble self-possession. It is a calamity to have missed opportunities, even in childhood, of seeing an actor who could thus be described and thus remembered.

              While for me stars of the first and second magnitudes were dying out, there were many to take their places in my young imagination. Had I not Wallack, first god of my idolatry; had I not Macready, Phelps, Harley, Wrench, the Keeleys, Farren, Mrs. Orger, Miss Kelly (of the "divine plain face"), Mrs. Glover, Miss Helen Faucit, and many, many more I cannot hope to see the like of, simply because, if the like were to come indeed, they could not bring to me the enthusiasm of my youth? It was when I was yet a child that a young country actor began to make his mark by playing in farce and low comedy, and anon by writing melodramas and pieces of that stamp. The first I saw of him was at the City Subscription Theatre, in Milton Street, at the East End. He played a character called Foxey Jackson in a new domestic drama, which I saw on the night when it was first brought out. It was entitled "Eily O'Connor; or, The Foster Brother", and was founded on Gerald Griffin's novel, "The Collegians," from which also "The Colleen Bawn" was taken about thirty years later. In it were Miss Ellen Tree, Mr and Mrs. Chapman, James Vining, and Miss Forde. Their relative characters were Eily O'Connor, Mrs. Cregan, Hardress, Anne Chute, and Danny Mann. There was no Myles-na-Copaleen; but the representative of Foxey; who, likely enough, was the author of the piece, was named John Baldwin Buckstone. Gentles, my tale is so far said. Valete et plaudite.

              First Nights of My Young Days
              by Godfrey Turner

              From: The Theatre, a monthly review of drama, music and fine arts

                New Series, Vol VIII, December 1st, 1886

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