Drunken Actors

Covent Garden Theatre, painted c. 1821, where John Edwin the Elder often performed.

Snippets 145.  In almost every generation there has been an actor who is known for turning up drunk to work.  They often became famous for it, and all the more popular.  In Thomas Munden’s biography of his father, well-known actor Joseph Shepherd Munden, he wrote about one of Joseph’s contemporaries George Frederick Cooke (1756-1812) who was famed for his drunken comedy performances, and compared him to another comic actor who was at the end of his career when Munden was embarking on his, the “inimitable Edwin”: John Edwin the Elder (1749-1790).  The following quote is taken from Memoirs of Joseph Shepherd Munden.

In 1790 died, the, as he is called in the records of the times, “inimitable Edwin.” Very little is preserved which can give us a notion of his peculiar qualities. A writer, who seems to understand his subject, describes him as “a thin, tidy, dollish kind of man, with a quizzical, drollish air. He acted a sort of Fribble, a weak-headed dandy of those times. There was a quaintness about his manner which took possession of the town, although, in general, he played solely to the upper classes – the gallery.” He must have been much better than this criticism describes, for few comedians ever carried the town so far with them as Edwin did. It is undoubted that he was one of the best comic singers that ever trod the stage…

He is said to have been as fond of raising the glass to his lips as Cooke was. The late Stephen Kemble once asked rather jesuitically, if Cooke did not owe much of his celebrity to this vice and his utter disdain of public opinion. There might be something in this insinuation. The crowds who flocked to see Richard the Third, and Sir Pertinax Macsycophant were always in doubt whether they should have value for the price of their admission; since it was an even chance that, before the curtain rose, an apology would be made for Mr. Cooke who was suffering under “violent spasms.” This, unquestionably, created excitement, and rendered him a rarity, which his more regular rival, Kemble, was not. When he did appear, the rapture of the audience knew no bounds. In a similar way Edwin, as is described by the writer before referred to, “was brought to the stage door, senseless and motionless, at the bottom of a chaise. Brandon was then called in as practising physician. If they could put on him the proper dress, and push him to the lamps he rubbed his stupid eyes for a minute; consciousness and quaint humour awoke together; and he seemed to play the better for it.” Be that as it may, the public thought Edwin a great actor, and great without doubt he was, for the public are seldom wrong.

“Fribble” is a word that has largely fallen into disuse, meaning a foolish person.  It probably has the same origin as “frivolous”.

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The Struggling Actor


A barn (not with a theatre inside!) painted by Henry Davy.

Snippets 144.  Joseph Shepherd Munden was a well-known actor during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, known principally for his comedy performances.  His son Thomas wrote his very entertaining biography, Memoirs of Joseph Shepherd Munden.  The following anecdotes concern his early career:

From Liverpool he repaired to Rochdale, where he had relations, and joined a strolling company. A laughable circumstance is related of this company, which took place during the performance of the Fair Penitent. In the scene where Calista is seated in all the dignity of grief, beside the clay-cold corse of the false Lothario, it unfortunately happened, that the person who lay as the lifeless form of the gay perfidious, was neither more nor less than a footman in the neighbourhood. His master happened accidentally to be at the theatre, and presented himself behind the stage to the great discomfiture of poor John, who, hearing his voice, speedily started up, to the surprise of the audience, and immediately took to his heels.

A far cry from his later success, Munden’s early actings jobs often proved to be a disappointment:

At this moment of necessity, Munden became acquainted with the manager of a strolling company, then assembled at Letherhead, in Surrey: he entered his name among the list; and under the banner of this theatric monarch, he set off, possessed of the amazing sum of thirteen pence.

As the reader may reasonably suppose, the thirteen pence was nearly exhausted in a journey of eighteen miles. He found the theatre a barn, — the stage manager making the necessary arrangements, whilst the prompter was occupied in sweeping down the cobwebs, and clearing away the refuse of corn and straw on the floor. Munden wanted money: the manager had none, and the actor’s watch was pawned for support.

The following night was appointed for a performance; the rehearsal over, the barn floor cleared, planks erected, and saw-dust strewed for the expected company: but in vain was the barn floor cleared, in vain the saw-dust strewed, — the audience were— nil!

If you enjoyed this “snippet” please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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The Shame of Being a Poet

View of Düsseldorf with the church of St. Andrew in the centre, by Jan van der Heyden and Adriaen van de Velde (1667)

Snippets 143.  Last week we looked at a quote from the opening to the memoirs of Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, a German lyric poet, whose words were set to music by composers including Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.   There is a large passage missing from the memoirs, due to some of the pages being burnt by his brother in order to keep their contents from publication, but fortunately the rest of the manuscript survived and has been translated into English a couple of times.  The following quotes, concerning Heinrich Heine’s school days, are taken from the 1910 edition, with a translation by Gilbert Cannan that is rather more florid than the 1884 publication we looked at last week.  The first quote is about the writer’s struggles with Latin, something that will probably be familiar to a lot of readers:

As for Latin, dear lady, I have not the least idea how that became so complicated. The Romans would not have had much time left for the conquering of the world if they had first had to learn Latin. These fortunate people knew from their cradles what nouns have the accusative in im. I, on the contrary, had to learn them by heart in the sweat of my brow… But, dear lady, the irregular verbs they are distinguished from the regular verbs in that they are more productive of thrashings they are indeed horribly difficult. In the dim cloisters of the Franciscan monastery, not far from the schoolroom there hung at that time a great crucified Christ of grey wood, a dreary form, that even now at times strides through my dreams of a night, and gazes mournfully at me with blank and bloody eyes before this I used often to stand and pray : “Thou poor, thou ever-tormented God, if everything is possible for Thee, then do thou look to it that I keep the irregular verbs in my head.”

Heinrich Heine’s talents of course lay in the more creative side of his academic studies, but creativity was not always encouraged:

But best of all for me was the French class of the Abbe d’Aulnoi, a French émigré, who had written a number of grammar books, and wore a red wig and hopped about gaily as he held forth on his Art Poetique and his Histoire Allemande. In all the school he was the only one to teach German history.

It can easily be imagined that there must come open hostility between myself and the old periwig. He denied in me all sense of poetry, and called me a barbarian of the forest of Teutoburg. It is still a horror to me that I was set to translate the speech of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrin from the hexameters of Klopstock’s Messiad into French Alexandrines, taking the extract from the Professor’s Anthology! It was a refinement of cruelty, surpassing even the agony of the Passion of the Messiah, and even He would not have borne it in peace. God forgive me; I cursed the world and the foreign oppressors, and I came near to being an eater of Frenchmen. I might have been able to die for France, but to make French verses never!

The quarrel was pacified by the Rector and my mother. My mother was not at all pleased that I should learn to make verses, even if they were only French. She was in the greatest fear that I might become a poet that was the worst, she used to say, that could happen to me. The notions bound up with the name of poet in those days were not particularly honourable, and a poet was a poor devil out-at-elbows, who supplied occasional verse for a few shillings, and in the end died in the hospital. . .

Heine’s childhood was spent in Düsseldorf, which was under French occupation at the time, hence the suffering inflicting on him and the insult “barbarian of the forest of Teutoburg”.

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Memoirs in Flames

A painting of Dusseldorf, birthplace of Heinrich Heine, painted by Andreas Achenbach in 1831.

Snippets 142.  Christian Johann Heinrich Heine was a German lyric poet, whose words were set to music by composers including Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.  In the twilight of his life he decided to write his memoirs, which he never finished.  The following quote is from the introductory passage of those memoirs, published posthumously in 1884, and I think you will agree that his writing also had the lyrical quality of a talented poet:

All that is important and characteristic is honestly communicated here, and the combined effect of exterior events and of occurrences in the inner life of my soul will reveal to you the stamp of my being and myself. The veil has fallen from my soul, and thou mayest look at it in its beautiful nakedness. There are no blemishes, only wounds. And, alas! wounds made not by the hands of enemies but by those of friends.

The night is silent. Outside only the rain beats upon the roof, and mournfully moans the autumn wind.

The cheerless sick-room at this moment is almost luxuriously home-like, and I sit without pain in the large arm-chair.

All at once, without the handle of the door moving, thy beautiful image enters, and thou liest down upon the cushion at my feet. Rest thy beautiful head on my knees and, without looking up, listen.

I will tell thee the tale of my life.

If occasionally heavy drops should fall upon thy locks, do not be disturbed; it is not the rain that leaks through the roof.. Do not cry, but silently press my hand.

…and there the memoir breaks off, with the next 25 pages missing.  After Heine’s death his brother visited his widow, read the manuscript of the memoirs, and burnt a significant portion of it, angered by Heine’s description of their humble origins.  That act of destruction I think speaks more about the brother than the missing 25 pages ever could have done.

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Children’s Christmas Letters 5

»ë;Christmas History 32.  Recently on Windows into History we have been looking at some letters from children published in a January 1910 edition of the Iowa Homestead, writing about how they spent their Christmas.  The following is one last selection:

My Christmas was spent very differently this year to what I had spent it other years. We had always had our relatives who were able to get their own Christmas dinner, but this year we were thinking about those we could make happy by inviting them out for Christmas. There was a poor family living about two miles from us in the country. The mother was sick with consumption and had been sick for a long time, but was still able to drive. There were four children, the baby was one year old and the other children’s ages were four, six and eight years. They could not afford to have a Christmas dinner, besides the mother was not able to prepare it, as the father had to do the work, so we invited them to spend Christmas with us. They arrived about eleven o’clock Christmas morning. As the children bounced in with their merry laughter wishing us a merry Christmas and we pulled the large rocking chair close by the fire, mamma putting a large quilt in it so it would be more comfortable for the lady, then taking the baby and unwrapping it, the rest of us danced around the Christmas tree, which was the best they had ever seen. By this time dinner was ready and as everything was placed on the table we called dinner and as we sat down to the table and a fork was plunged into the turkey’s breast a savory smell filled the room and a murmur of delight went all around the table. And even the baby’s eyes jumped with delight as it saw the big red apples on the table. Dinner over, we played many games, such as playing the piano, singing songs, and playing house with our dolls. Then I gave each of them a large doll. Popcorn, nuts and candy were taken from the tree, each one receiving his share. Time flew so fast that they soon had to go home. We all thought our Christmas well spent in making others happy.

I am glad to have the opportunity to write to you and tell you how I spent my Christmas and what I am doing to pass my time. Well, the weather was stormy and I did not get to go to a Christmas tree, but I knew that Santa Claus had something stored away Christmas eve for me, but I did not say anything, so Christmas eve before I went to bed I put my plate on the table and said: “Santa Claus, remember me, when I am fast asleep, and do through the chimney creep, that in the morning I for joy may leap.” And so it was when I got up in the morning I leaped for joy when I saw my plate full of candy and a harp and a rubber ball and a package of mixed nuts. Oh! what else do you think I saw lying side of my plate on the table? It was a nice, big, dressed doll, fast asleep, and I picked her up and said “Hello, Katie,” and she opened her sweet brown eyes and looked right straight at me, with a sweet smile on her face, and I kissed her and laid her in my doll carriage which Santa Claus brought me four years ago last Christmas, and I kept it nice. I got two dolls, but they are not so large and nice as this one is now. I will be busy again to crochet my new doll a nice hood. I crocheted my other two dolls each a hood. I learned to crochet doll’s hoods from the girls in school. Oh! I sometimes wish Christmas would come oftener. We always go to church on Christmas, then the preacher always talks to us about Jesus being born on Christmas. I love to go to church, and to Sunday-school where we hear so much about our loving Jesus. I just wonder if all the girls and boys love Jesus. Well, I hope this will be interesting to all the girls and boys that read this. I am my mamma’s eleven-year-old girl.

The day before Christmas it snowed very hard and so I was looking forth to a merry sleigh ride. Christmas morning when I awoke it had stopped snowing and I got ready for a sleigh ride. Outside the sleigh was ready. I got in and soon we were riding along the country road. It was a pretty winter scene, the trees were all bare with now and then a lonely sparrow who gave a faint chirp. Everything was covered with snow and it was pleasant to hear the bells that jingled merrily. As we passed the church we heard the Christmas bells ringing and the pretty decorations made on account of the great holiday. It was noon when I returned home and I was ready for a hearty Christmas dinner. After dinner I got a Christmas basket ready. I got a large basket and put a turkey, cranberries, butter, bread, cake and a large plum pudding into it and also filled a large stocking with toys and books. I put on my coat and cap and took the basket to a neighbor’s home. These little children had never seen Christmas toys or even a Christmas dinner. I put the basket on the doorstep, put a card on it saying it was from me, and knocking hard on the door I vanished, leaving it for them to enjoy. It was almost dark when I returned home and it had begun to snow. In the evening, Santa Claus came. He brought a fur, combs, new register, ribbon, handkerchief, a new dolly dress, a small calendar from my dear teacher, a large Christmas tree and candy, oranges and nuts. I enjoyed Christmas very much and when I lay on my pillow in the evening I thought I had made other children happy besides myself.

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Children’s Christmas Letters 4

old christmasChristmas History 31.  Recently on Windows into History we have been looking at some letters from children published in a January 1910 edition of the Iowa Homestead, writing about how they spent their Christmas.  The following is another selection:

I am a girl thirteen years of age, but I always love to talk about Christmas and have it come, because it is always a pleasure for us children. Christmas eve I took part in an entertainment given by our Sunday-school. We had a Christmas tree and we all enjoyed it very much, especially when Santa Claus made his appearance. What a pleasure it was to see the little tots gather around him. We were invited to grandpa’s for Christmas dinner. Grandpa lives in town now. They used to live in the country near us. So you can guess that grandma knows how to get up a good, old-fashioned dinner. Her turkey and plum pudding was delicious, and the many other good things too numerous to mention. We spent the day in playing games, music, snowballing and sleigh riding. Before I knew it the day was almost gone, and it was time to go home. I was sorry that Christmas day was nearly gone. Oh, I forgot to mention that Santa was good to me. He brought me many nice things and among them was a pair of skates, I liked best. I also helped mamma fix up a basket for two little children whose mamma has been sick for a long time and was not able to prepare them a Christmas. Of all my enjoyment I believe this pleased me the most. How glad it made their little hearts. And I wished that I might do more for the needy ones.

I am a farmer’s daughter and live on a large farm. I arose early Christmas morning wondering if good old Santa Claus had left anything in my stockings which I had hung up beneath the chimney with the greatest of care the night before. I ran downstairs laughing and dancing with joy. Running to the chimney corner I saw before me the once empty stockings overflowing with beautiful and useful gifts. By this time mamma came into the room and told me that company was expected for dinner and that I must carefully lay aside my gifts and prepare for them. I obeyed and soon I was dressed ready for the company. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door and I ran calling to mamma that the company had arrived. After they had been quietly seated in the parlor, mother excused herself to prepare dinner and left me to entertain the company. This I enjoyed very much, as they all knew how hard it was for a little girl to talk or say much among so many grown-up people. About two o’clock mother came to the door and invited us out to dinner. Oh! my, I was hungry, but papa and sister told me that I must wait until the company had had dinner. Could I ever stand it? The smell of the roasting turkey and the delicious looking table made my appetite increase more rapidly. Mother saw that it was a great temptation for her little girl to wait so long, so she gave me a piece of cake and I went in the other room and quietly waited. It was not long until they all came in. After dinner the older ones played games and some of the girls played on the organ and they had singing while I took the little girls and boys and we went out of doors to coast and snowball. We had great fun rolling and running around in the snow. About five o’clock the company prepared to leave, saying they had enjoyed themselves very much during the day and hoped that we might be together next Christmas to have as good a time.

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Children’s Christmas Letters 3

George_Henry_Durrie_-_A_Christmas_PartyChristmas History 30.  Recently on Windows into History we have been looking at some letters from children published in a January 1910 edition of the Iowa Homestead, writing about how they spent their Christmas.  The following is another selection:

Christmas was a very bad day here. It was snowing furiously when I started to my grandma and grandpa’s house in Taylorville, with my sister, mother and father. We had a very disagreeable trip through the snow, but reached there in time for the good dinner they had prepared. In the afternoon we went over to one of my aunt’s, who lives across the yard from grandma’s, where they had the Christmas tree. Several of my aunts, uncles and cousins were there and Santa Claus came and gave us all nice presents. We then had music and played with all the pretty playthings. We returned home about nine o’clock at night, all having enjoyed ourselves very much.

I did not spend Christmas very nicely. I had the chicken pox and did not go out of doors very much. In the forenoon I sewed carpet rags for a while and then I played carom. And in the afternoon I sewed some more carpet rags. After a while I went and played with my brother and his toys. I ate candy, nuts and oranges. That night I played carom again and I went to bed and this was the way I spent my Christmas.

I will try and write a letter to you. I go to the country school and I learn to read, spell and write. I learn grammar and geography and to sing. I enjoy the school very much. I have many friends and playmates. I play with them at recess. We have an organ at home. I have a nice home and I enjoy it very much, I have four sisters and three brothers; two of my sisters are married. We live four miles from town and one mile from school. We have four rooms down stairs and four upstairs in our house. We have fine weather and fine sleighing up here. We haven’t our corn all picked yet; there is too much snow.

I spent Christmas at my uncle’s and had a pleasant time. We had a fat goose for dinner and it sure was fine. I am thirteen years old and I am going to school and I am getting along nicely. We have got a nice teacher this year. We have had him two years and all the scholars like him fine. I am in the Fifth Reader, spelling, arithmetic and geography, and love to play with my playmates. I live in the country with my father and mother, three brothers and two sisters. I like to live on the farm where birds and flowers grow. We have horses, mules, cattle, sheep and hogs and chickens. I like to raise little chicks.

I am a little girl seven years old. I have three sisters. We live one mile from town. I go to the Presbyterian church to Sunday-school. Christmas eve mamma went down to help dress the tree, so she let me go with her. Papa gave me fifteen cents and I got my oldest sister a little autograph album and my little sister next to me a yard of ribbon for her hair. Then I went up to the church and gave mamma the things to put on the tree, then I helped some other little girls go around and get things for the tree. About seven o’clock we all began to go to the church to get our presents and see Santa Claus. The baby class in our Sunday-school all were dressed in their white night gowns and kneeled down and said a little prayer that was in our Sunday-school paper. My little sister, Madeline, and me were in it; she is just four years old and couldn’t learn the prayer, so she just kneeled down with us and I wish you could have seen her. She just drawed her eyes up the tightest and looked so cute. Then after they were all done saying their pieces, Santa Claus came in blowing a horn and was so funny and when I found out who it was, don’t you think it was papa? Christmas day was awful cold, but I went with mamma about seven miles to see a good old grandma that God had taken home to heaven Christmas eve, and an aunt of mine, who is very sick of consumption. So that is the way I spent Christmas.

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