1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Bucke

George Ticknor; Journal Entry, 1819; Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor (1876) 1:291-92.



One show that I took some pains to see in London was, to be sure, very different from the others, but still very curious. Mr. Washington Irving and I went together to see the damning of a play called "The Italians," which had been acted two nights, amidst such an uproar that it was impossible to determine whether the piece were accepted or not; and so it was now brought forward, avowedly for final adjudication. The house was filled; though, as a riot had been foreseen, few ladies were there. Before the curtain rose, Stephen Kemble, the manager, — a very respectable looking old man, with the marks of infirmity strong upon him, — came forward, but was received with such shouting and hooting by the pit, who thought the play ought to have been withdrawn, that he was not heard for a long time. At last his venerable appearance and humble manner seemed to have softened the hard hearts of the mob a little; and, after many bows, he was allowed, though not without several indecent interruptions, to read a short address, promising, if the play was condemned, that it should be immediately withdrawn, though still begging a fair hearing. Of the last there seemed to he some doubt.

The curtain rose and the actors began, but they were received with indignant cries and showers of orange-peels. They persisted, however, and the house grew quieter. The pit, indeed, seemed disposed to come to a compromise, and wait till the conclusion before it should enter into the exercise of its rights of condemnation. Still, it was apparent that the piece was already judged and sentenced, for every time that an actor said anything that could be forced to a bad sense, the audience took advantage of it. If he groaned, they groaned with comical dolorousness; if he complained, they complained most pertinaciously with him; and the words "'Tis shameful," "'Tis villanous," were echoed several minutes by most of the pit, standing on the benches and swinging their hats, and crying out as loud as their voices would permit. In this way, perhaps about one third of what was spoken might have been heard during the three first acts; the rest passed only in dumb show, drowned in the universal uproar.

At the end of the third act the half-prices came in, as usual. They had not heard the address, and knew nothing of the tacit compact between the pit and the manager; or, if they did, they cared nothing about it. The moment the curtain rose for the fourth act, cries of "Off! Off!" prevailed over all others, and half the time the body of the pit was jumping on the benches, and making an uproar that was almost sufficient to burst the ears of those in the boxes. The actors hurried on, skipped apparently half their parts, since not a syllable could be heard, and finally concluded in pantomime. When it was finished, the uproar, which I thought before as intense as it could be, seemed to be doubled. Several persons came forward to speak, but could not be heard. Hunt, who sat two boxes from us, collected a little audience and declaimed a few moments, but to very little purpose, for those more than ten feet from him were only spectators of his furious manner; and all parts of the house seemed about breaking forth into an outrageous riot. The only way anybody's opinion could be known was by placards, and many had come provided with them, and hoisted them on their canes or umbrellas. Some were, "Damn the Italians," "Are not three times enough, Mr. Manager?" Others were in favor of the play; and one, alluding to Kean's steady opposition to it and bad behavior after its reception, was, "Will the justice of an English public permit a deserving author to be condemned, without a hearing, by a blackguard actor and his vulgar pot companions?"...

At length the venerable old manager appeared. He made a dozen of his humblest bows, but in vain. He stretched out his hand, as if beseeching to be heard, and was answered only by louder and more vulgar outcries and he was obliged to go off without having pronounced an audible word, after standing before his inexorable masters in that awkward and degrading situation above a quarter of an hour. He was followed by a burst of indignation that made the house almost tremble. An instant afterwards the curtain rose and a blackboard was discovered, on which was written in chalk, "'The Italians' is withdrawn." A shout of exultation, that deserved to be called savage, succeeded, and the pit relapsed into a kind of hollow calm that ill concealed a busy brooding that lurked beneath. The party that had been defeated was determined not to yield.